The Environmental Protection Agency is facing new scrutiny of its decision to stop enforcing pollution rules amid the pandemic, escalating a fight over what critics see as one of the most egregious parts of the administration’s response to the coronavirus ahead of the November election.
In a letter sent Monday to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D) and Ed Markey (D) accused the agency of providing “all but meaningless” responses to earlier questions about the March order to suspend enforcement of environmental laws.
The six-page correspondence, which HuffPost obtained, demanded straight answers on how the administration planned to account for pollution spewed during the months the agency held its already-weakened enforcement agents at bay.
“It remains deeply troubling that the EPA has decided to protect polluting industries and weaken public health safeguards amidst a public health crisis,” the senators wrote. “Rather than implement and enforce bedrock environmental protections, the Trump administration relinquished its responsibilities and allowed polluters to regulate themselves, with no clear guidelines for how the EPA would hold them accountable.”
The order in late March drew immediate condemnation from environmentalists, public health experts and state and local officials who feared leaving companies to police themselves would increase the kinds of pollution that studies show to inflame the risks of COVID-19, the respiratory disease the virus causes.
In April, Warren and Markey sent a lengthy letter to the EPA demanding the agency explain why companies should be allowed to police their own pollution and how rolling back additional environmental rules would protect public health as the United States struggled to contain a deadly respiratory disease.
Later that month, the agency responded, saying the policy helped protect its workers. The EPA’s own staff union decried the concern over employees as insincere, pointing to the agency’s push to reopen regional offices.
That narrow explanation didn’t satisfy the Massachusetts lawmakers either.
“Not only did the EPA fail to respond to key parts of our inquiries, it failed to explain how public health would remain protected amid the crisis and raised further concerns,” Warren and Markey wrote in the latest letter.
In an emailed statement, the EPA said it opened 103 criminal enforcement cases between March 16 and July 31 and charged 32 defendants and said that the allegations that the “regulated community took EPA’s policy ‘as a free pass’ to stop compliance is unsupported speculation.”
“EPA has not curtailed its enforcement during this public health emergency,” EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said by email. “Nobody is allowed to increase their emissions under EPA’s COVID-19 enforcement discretion policy.”
She said the agency would respond to the senators’ latest letter “through the proper channels.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the administration plowed ahead with proposals to relax existing regulations. In April, the EPA loosened rules on toxic mercury emissions from power plants. In May, the Commerce Department started the process of opening federal waters to fish farming. In August, the EPA scrapped a regulation on oil and gas companies’ emissions of methane, a super potent greenhouse gas.
The issue gets at President Donald Trump’s biggest weakness ahead of the Nov. 3 vote on whether to give the game show host-turned-politician another four years in the White House.
Gallup polling shows that over 60% of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of both the environment and the pandemic. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that support for the president’s approach to the pandemic plunged even among his loyal base of Republicans.
Just 29% of Americans approved of Trump’s position on climate change while 62% disapproved, the widest gulf on any issue in a Washington Post-ABC News poll last year that recorded Trump’s highest overall approval rating yet at 44%. That uptick had been driven largely by the relative strength of the economy and low unemployment in 2019, all of which has been virtually wiped out by the chaos of the pandemic.
The EPA, for its part, is attempting to burnish the administration’s record. On Monday, the agency greenlighted the use of a new disinfectant spray that it said would eradicate the virus that causes COVID-19 from surfaces for seven days. The federal approval, given to an application from state regulators in Texas, is limited to Fort Worth-based American Airlines and a hospital in Texas.