The Trump administration introduced this week a sweeping relaxation of environmental laws and fines during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to new guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), companies will largely be exempt from consequences for polluting the air or water during the outbreak.
In a letter to all government and private sector partners on Thursday, the EPA's Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Susan Parker Bodine said that the agency does not expect power plants, factories or other companies to meet environmental standards and reporting of pollution during this time — and it won't pursue penalties if companies break the rules.
Under normal circumstances, companies are required to report when they release certain levels of pollution into the air or water. Now, the EPA has effectively ceded its federal authority to state offices and said companies will be responsible for monitoring their own air and water pollution during this time.
"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," Bodine wrote.
Polluters will be able to avoid penalties for breaking environmental laws if they claim that the violations were in some way related to the pandemic. The agency asked companies to "minimize the effects and duration of any noncompliance" and "act responsibly" during this period.
"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 a press release.
The guidance applies retroactively beginning March 13 and extends indefinitely.
Critics of the new guidelines argue the relaxed laws will result in more pollution and make it difficult to assess the resulting environmental damage. More air pollution not only leads to a warmer climate, but it can also cause major respiratory issues, among other health problems — potentially putting the communities who live near these facilities at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19.
"This is an open license to pollute. Plain and simple," Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former EPA Administrator, said in a press release. "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 favors for polluters that threaten public health. We can all appreciate the need for additional caution and flexibility in a time of crisis, but this brazen directive is an abdication of the EPA's responsibility to protect our health."
Several environmental organizations put out statements opposing the new guidelines.
"At a time when communities across the country are desperately trying to clean up polluted waters and one-third of wildlife species are at a heightened risk of extinction, this misguided rule places our drinking water, our wildlife and our nation's way of life further at risk," said Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement.
"As the country focuses on protecting public health and safety from COVID-19, Donald Trump and Andrew Wheeler are exploiting this pandemic to make toxic pollution legal," said Michael Brune, Executive Director of environmental organization the Sierra Club, in a statement. "This illegal and reckless action will not go unchecked."
Wheeler defended the move on Twitter Friday, saying the EPA is working to protect public health and the environment "while providing a small degree of flexibility during these extraordinary times."