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EPA's relaxed enforcement of pollution reporting due to COVID-19 ends in August

Michael Wilner, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency will end a temporary policy that relaxed reporting requirements on pollutants due to the coronavirus at the end of August, amid criticism that the pandemic policy has jeopardized public health.

Democratic lawmakers, several states and the agency's inspector general all criticized the EPA policy that went into effect in March, warning that it would lead to increased pollution and decreased monitoring. They also expressed concern that the policy did not have a clear end date.

The pandemic policy will now officially expire at midnight on Aug. 31, Susan Parker Bodine, author of the policy and assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance at the EPA, told McClatchy in an interview.

The temporary policy was aimed at regulated facilities struggling to meet the EPA's various reporting requirements amid increased remote work. When the agency put the policy in place, it said it would not seek penalties if facilities dealing in pollutants missed "routine reporting" obligations and could prove it was caused by the outbreak of COVID-19.

"We picked the August 31 date as the termination date to give folks -- the regulatory community and the states -- a heads up to allow them to prepare for the sunsetting of the policy," Bodine said.

The policy has generated controversy. Democratic lawmakers, including leadership on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, claimed in a letter to the EPA administrator that the agency's COVID-19 enforcement policy required little proof from noncompliant facilities and "creates license for companies to violate our environmental laws."

 

Nine states, including California, New York and Illinois, asked a federal court this month to issue a preliminary injunction on the policy, which they said in a brief would result in "increased pollution threatening our residents."

And a statement from the EPA's Office of Inspector General warned this month that "additional reduction in enforcement activity places the EPA's regulatory mission at greater risk and threatens the Agency's overall mission to protect human health and the environment."

Shortly before the policy was announced, the American Petroleum Institute asked the Trump administration to "temporarily waive nonessential compliance obligations." Days later, the EPA outlined its new pandemic policy, freezing penalties for "violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, reporting and certification obligations," the policy statement said.

In a letter addressed to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and obtained by McClatchy, the EPA said that critics of the policy "fundamentally misunderstood" its design.

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