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

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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.

“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 in the agency’s announcement.

The policy “addresses different categories of noncompliance differently.” For example, the 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.

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 critics say that the policy will not only result in more pollution, but also make it impossible to fully assess the environmental damage.

In a statement to the Hill, Cynthia Giles, who headed the EPA’s Office of Enforcement during the Obama administration, said the new policy “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.”

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