USA: Environmental Protection Agency relaxes enforcement of environmental regulations & fines on companies amid coronavirus

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17 April 2020

EPA weakens controls on the release of mercury & other toxic metals from oil & coal-fired power plants

Author: Lisa Friedman & Coral Davenport, The New York Times

The Trump administration... weakened regulations on the release of mercury and other toxic metals from oil and coal-fired power plants, another step toward rolling back health protections in the middle of a pandemic... By reducing the positive health effects of regulations on paper and raising their economic costs, the new method could be used to justify loosening restrictions on any pollutant that the fossil fuel industry has deemed too costly to control... Over the past few weeks... the administration has also rushed to loosen curbs on automobile tailpipe emissions, opted not to strengthen a regulation on industrial soot emissions and moved to drop the threat of punishment to companies that kill birds “incidentally.”... Environmental lawyers and public health leaders called the timing of the final mercury rule, as well as its substance, an attack on air quality. 

While coal producers urged Mr. Trump to roll back the rule, the vast majority of electric utility companies have agreed the cost-benefit changes may be of little help to them, because they have already spent the billions of dollars needed to come into compliance. Many of those companies urged the Trump administration to leave the mercury measure in place... Coal plants subject to the rule “have already spent millions of dollars to install mercury equipment to reduce mercury emissions,” wrote Scott A. Weaver, the director of air quality services for American Electric Power... “Rescinding the standards at this point will create new problems.”

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26 March 2020

EPA relaxes enforcement of environmental laws during the COVID-19 outbreak

Author: Catherine Shu, TechCrunch

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Thursday that it is temporarily relaxing enforcement of environmental regulations and fines during the COVID-19 outbreak. The “enforcement discretion policy” applies retroactively to March 13, with no end date set yet.

The new policy follows lobbying from industries including oil and gas, which told the Trump administration that relaxed regulations will allow them to more efficiently distribute fuel during the outbreak, but because it is broadly written, it could potentially influence companies’ actions in a large range of industries, including tech... [C]ompanies are being asked only to make data from monitoring available to the EPA if requested by the agency... [T]he EPA said it will not seek penalties for noncompliance with monitoring and reporting “that are the result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” but that it still expects public water systems to provide safe drinking water.

... “EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes the 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,” said EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler.

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26 March 2020

EPA suspends enforcement of environmental laws amid coronavirus

Author: Rebecca Beitsch, The Hill

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a sweeping suspension of its enforcement of environmental laws Thursday, telling companies they would not need to meet environmental standards during the coronavirus outbreak. The temporary policy, for which EPA has set no end date, would allow any number of industries to skirt environmental laws, with the agency saying it will not “seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations.”

“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,” [said] Cynthia Giles, who headed EPA’s Office of Enforcement during the Obama administration... "[T]he EPA statement does not even reserve EPA's right to act in the event of an imminent threat to public health."

... The EPA has been under pressure from a number of industries, including the oil industry, to suspend enforcement of a number of environmental regulations due to the pandemic... American Petroleum Institute... asked for a suspension of rules that require repairing leaky equipment as well as monitoring to make sure pollution doesn’t seep into nearby water... The memo says companies should try to minimize “the effects and duration of any noncompliance” with environmental laws, and should also keep records of their own noncompliance, along with identifying how the coronavirus was a factor.

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25 March 2020

Coronavirus doesn’t slow Trump’s regulatory rollbacks

Author: Lisa Friedman, New York Times

President Trump is pushing ahead with major reversals of environmental regulations... Federal employees across multiple agencies said the administration was racing to complete a half-dozen significant rollbacks over the coming month. They include a measure to weaken automobile fuel efficiency standards... oosening controls on toxic ash from coal plants, relaxing restrictions on mercury emissions and weakening the consideration of climate change in environmental reviews for most infrastructure projects... A dozen federal workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about agency work, all described a relentless atmosphere at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department.

... “The administration is essentially taking advantage of the fact that the public is distracted and in fact disabled from fully engaging against this ideological push,” said David J. Hayes, director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law.

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23 March 2020

Oil industry group asks Trump administration to lessen regulations amid coronavirus

Author: Rachel Frazin, The Hill

American Petroleum Institute (API) executives wrote to both President Trump and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking that they temporarily waive “non-essential compliance obligations” such as record-keeping, training and other non-safety requirements... “The oil and natural gas industry needs to maintain safe and reliable operations, taking into consideration that there may be limited personnel capacity to manage the full scope of the current regulatory requirements." API President wrote... [His] request for regulatory relief to the White House says the industry could benefit from waiving requirements in the departments of Transportation, the Interior, Homeland Security and State, as well as the EPA. 

... Environmental groups, however, have expressed strong opposition to congressional assistance for fossil fuel companies. They have said that assistance should instead go to clean energy producers... The Union of Concerned Scientists said in a tweet that "we can’t use one crisis like #coronavirus to make another crisis like climate change worse."

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