During these strange last few weeks of pandemic-induced shelter-in-place orders, toilet paper hoarding and beach closures, one of the few silver linings has been news stories of improved environmental health — from clear waters in Venice, Italy to several consecutive weeks of clean air in Los Angeles — which seem to suggest that everything on the planet (aside from people, of course) might enjoy a net-positive outcome from the coronavirus outbreak.
Not so fast. On Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, announced a broad relaxation of environmental rules framed as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. Traditionally, large production facilities like factories and power plants are required to report anytime they discharge a certain level of pollution into the air and water. According to the New York Times, though, power plants, factories and other facilities are now allowed to monitor themselves. That’s right, the EPA will no longer issue fines for certain violations related to air, water, and hazardous waste. Let that sink in for a second.
The easing has been widely criticized, with a former Obama administration official telling the Times that the situation is “an open license to pollute” and “nothing short of an abject abdication of the E.P.A. mission to protect our well being.’’
Public officials in California, which often seems like the front lines in the battle between industry and environmental protection, were similarly incensed. Imperial Beach mayor Serge Dedina told the L.A. Times, “the severity of the COVID-19 crisis should not be used as an excuse by the EPA to relax enforcement of federal environmental laws designed to protect public health and safety,” adding “this crisis has only underscored why protecting public health and safety and our environment is more critical than ever.”
With enforcement agents across the country off the job, some see the move as practical. However, many others have noted with alarm that the sweeping changes were put in place for an indefinite period of time. Coupled with a policy of aggressive rollbacks of environmental regulations adopted by the Trump administration over the last few years, the E.P.A. seems to be treating the COVID-19 crisis as just another excuse to further defer to the polluters it was created to police.