The federal agency announced the temporary policy, which has no end date, in a memo on Thursday. The policy has been in place since 13 March but was announced retroactively.
A letter was sent from Susan Parker Bodine, an EPA assistant administrator, to all private sector and government partners.
It reads in part: “In general, the EPA 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 and the entity provides supporting documentation to the EPA upon request.”
“After this policy is no longer in effect, the EPA expects full compliance going forward,” the agency stated but added that it does not plan to ask facilities to “catch-up” on missed monitoring or reporting.
“The EPA will assess the continued need for and scope of this temporary policy on a regular basis and will update it if the EPA determines modifications are necessary. In order to provide fair and sufficient notice to the public, the EPA will post a notification here, at least seven days prior to terminating this temporary policy,' an EPA spokesperson told The Independent.
Natural Resources Defense Council tweeted: “This is an open licence to pollute. The administration should be giving its all toward making our country healthier right now. Instead it is taking advantage of an unprecedented public health crisis to do favours for polluters that threaten public health.”
Cynthia Giles, associate administrator of EPA enforcement under Barack Obama, said in a statement to The Hill: “This EPA statement is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future. It tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way ‘caused’ by the virus pandemic. And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was.”
The EPA said the pandemic had resulted in a shortage of workers and it was adhering to the widespread recommendations of social distancing and restricting travel.
The decision means that industries, including oil refineries and chemical plants, that are subject to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts will not have the same oversight during the pandemic.
Last week, the American Petroleum Institute asked Donald Trump for help suspending certain regulatory requirements on the oil and gas industry to ensure steady fuel supplies during the coronavirus outbreak, Reuters reported.
“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognises challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement.
Public water systems have a “heightened responsibility” to maintain standards, the EPA said, “because unsafe drinking water can lead to serious illnesses and access to clean water for drinking and handwashing is critical during the COVID-19 pandemic”.
The EPA added that the policy does not relieves any entity from their responsibility of preventing, reporting or taking action on “accidental releases of oil, hazardous substances, hazardous chemicals, hazardous waste, and other pollutant”.
The policy also does not apply to Superfund sites and other hazardous waste clean-ups under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
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