EPA charts path to suspend hazardous waste cleanup amid coronavirus

EPA charts path to suspend hazardous waste cleanup amid coronavirus
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday announced that the cleanup of hazardous waste sites and other pollution spills may be slowed or paused during the coronavirus outbreak.

The agency said it would consider on a case-by-case basis whether to delay any cleanup projects, which may be carried out by private companies or state and local governments in coordination with the EPA.

The guidance represents a different approach from a controversial March memo that offered an across-the-board option for companies to suspend monitoring of pollution if the virus interfered with their ability to do so.

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“EPA remains committed to protecting human health and the environment as we continue to adjust to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic,” EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Coal company sues EPA over power plant pollution regulation | Automakers fight effort to freeze fuel efficiency standards | EPA watchdog may probe agency's response to California water issues Coal company sues EPA over power plant pollution regulation OVERNIGHT ENERGY: New documents show EPA rolled back mileage standards despite staff, WH concerns | Land management bureau grants 75 royalty rate cuts for oil and gas | EPA employees allege leadership interference with science in watchdog survey MORE said in a statement. “This guidance will allow us to keep workers and the residents in these communities safe while also being able to respond to any emergency that may present an imminent danger to the public health or welfare.”

The guidance allows for a pause in cleanups of contaminated sites if site workers have tested positive for COVID-19, if social distancing on the site is not possible or if workers would have to enter the homes of any quarantined people to do their work. Those factors would be weighed against imminent threats of direct human exposure to any contaminants. 

Betsy Southerland, who served as director of the Office of Science and Technology at the EPA’s Office of Water under the Obama administration, said the case-by-case approach was appropriate, allowing career staff to evaluate what work should stall amid the pandemic.

That’s a sharp departure from the March memo, which Southerland called a blanket waiver. 

In that directive, the EPA said it would not pursue any fines or penalties against companies that stopped monitoring pollution output, arguing that the agency would be overwhelmed by such requests, and instead would review companies’ need to suspend monitoring after the pandemic. 

“They’re not making the same argument they made here in the regulatory enforcement memo that they don't have time to deal with it,” Southerland said. “They’re saying by god they will deal with it and really scrutinize it before any exemption is given, so we really hoped this is what [the] March memo would have looked like.”

Hazardous waste cleanup teams may be in a better position to carry on work during the virus given their reliance on suits designed to withstand numerous dangerous substances.