The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday (March 26) that it will not penalize companies for failing to meet a range of environmental standards during the coronavirus pandemic, according to The Hill. The temporary policy marks a “sweeping suspension” of the laws currently in place, The Hill reports, and has no set end date. 

Earlier this week, the American Petroleum Institute asked the EPA for the rules governing the repair of leaky equipment and the monitoring of water pollution to be suspended, reports The Hill. Additional industries effectively asked for an extension on deadlines to meet a number of other environmental goals.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler says in a statement that the agency “is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities...

The statement specifies that during the outbreak, the EPA will focus on acute risks and imminent threats to both public health and the environment.

“This EPA statement is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future,” Cynthia Giles, the former head of the agency’s Office of Enforcement during President Barack Obama’s administration, says in remarks to The Hill. “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.”

Eric Schaeffer, a former director of civil enforcement at the EPA and currently the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, tells The Hill, “It is not clear why refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities that continue to operate and keep their employees on the production line will no longer have the staff or time they need to comply with environmental laws.”

The EPA memo states that companies should “make every effort to comply with their environmental compliance obligations,” and when that isn’t possible, they should “minimize the effects and duration” of their noncompliance.

“During this extraordinary time, EPA believes that it is more important for facilities to ensure that their pollution control equipment remains up and running and the facilities are operating safely, than to carry out routine sampling and reporting,” EPA spokeswoman Andrea Woods tells The Hill.

Gina McCarthy, who headed the EPA during the Obama administration and is now president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells the Associated Press that the new policy is “an open license to pollute,” and that the current administration is “taking advantage of an unprecedented public health crisis to do favors for polluters that threaten public health.”

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