House Democrats are questioning the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over a March memo in which the agency said it may not seek penalties against companies that don’t monitor their pollution during the coronavirus pandemic.
The March 26 document states that the agency temporarily “does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance.”
In a Wednesday letter, Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee requested a briefing by the agency regarding the decisionmaking process behind that policy, its expected environmental impacts, and its anticipated end date.
The lawmakers are particularly pressing the agency on the influence of any outside groups, citing a letter that a prominent oil and gas industry group had written to the agency on March 23 asking it to temporarily waive “non-essential compliance obligations” such as recordkeeping, training and other non-safety requirements due to the virus.
The lawmakers also accused the EPA of “taking advantage of a global pandemic to advance an anti-environment and anti-climate agenda.”
“This unprecedented action sends a signal to polluters that they will not face any penalties for poisoning our air and water, which will put the health of Americans further at risk not only during the coronavirus crisis, but for years to come,” the Democrats wrote.
An EPA spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill that assertions made in the letter are “false.”
“EPA is not suspending enforcement of environmental laws during the pandemic ... The temporary enforcement policy is not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to work with federal, state and tribal partners to ensure that facilities are meeting regulatory requirements, while taking appropriate steps to protect the health of our staff and the public.”
The agency has also previously defended its policy, telling members of Congress that it "is not seeking penalties for noncompliance only in circumstances that involve routine monitoring and reporting requirements, if, on a case-by-case basis, EPA agrees that such noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Critics argue, however, that the damage will already be done by the time the EPA makes its decisions about whether the outbreak was a reason for the noncompliance.