While You Were Focused on COVID-19, EPA Gave Polluters Free Rein, Threatening At-Risk Communities

March 30, 2020 | 3:58 pm
Greg Kunit/Creative Commons (Flickr)
Adrienne Hollis
Former Contributor

On March 26, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an order–retroactive to March 13–giving polluters the power to “self-regulate,” suspending environmental enforcement and giving industry a free pass to pollute. This is the latest and most brazen act by an administration determined to remove any semblance of federal environmental oversight or protections for the public.

The Trump administration is focused on ensuring that industries can go about their business free from any rules that might constrain their polluting activities.  Put another way, polluters can now enjoy the profits they garner during the pandemic while poisoning the public free from repercussions.

A statement that begins: “EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but…” pretty much lets the public know our current EPA is not committed to protecting human health and the environment (emphasis added).

The EPA’s order does not mention industries or facilities by name. It describes their activities, such as facilities engaged in animal feeding operations, facilities which suffer from failure of air emission control or wastewater or waste treatment systems or other facility equipment or generators of hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

Endangering communities of color…again

This veritable free-for-all allows these polluters potentially unfettered discretion in determining themselves whether they have violated any environmental safety guidelines. Further, when these facilities DO violate certain guidelines for air, water, and hazardous waste reporting requirements, the EPA will not fine them. And as is often the case, communities of color will be disproportionately affected.

Dr. Lisa Cooper, internist and social epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, believes that COVID-19 will impact African Americans “to a greater extent than other more socially advantaged groups, because as a group, African Americans in the US have higher rates of poverty, housing and food insecurity, unemployment or underemployment, and chronic medical conditions and disabilities.”

This is reminiscent of the mass exodus of polluting companies from the North to the South, beginning in the 1970s and early 1980s, or to areas with communities of color and/or those with low socioeconomic status, like Richmond, California, which can trace the practice of environmental racism back 100 years. Enforcement actions in these and other areas are lax. In some states like Alabama, these environmental injustices still continue. This has inexorably led to more pollution in communities of color, where these companies are invariably located.

The EPA’s order states that the EPA does not expect to penalize these facilities 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 upon request.

Given the CDC guidelines and some facilities’ past history and performance when it comes to emissions, like the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge  petrochemical complex, it would not be unreasonable to assume that those facilities will not conduct routine compliance monitoring or any of the actions listed. After all, under this new order, they will not be fined if they do not.

Environmental protections don’t pose COVID-19 risk

Moreover, this tenuous relationship between COVID-19 and environmental violations has no basis in science. If we consider the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines the best available science on COVID-19 guiding the EPA’s actions, which of these at-risk groups benefit from making it easier to pollute?

Here is the CDC’s guidance on high-risk populations, which include the following categories:

  • People aged 65 years and older
  • People who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility
  • People with other high-risk conditions, which could include:
    • Chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma
    • Serious heart conditions
    • People who are immunocompromised, including cancer treatment
    • People of any age with severe obesity or certain underlying medical conditions, particularly if not well controlled, such as those with diabetes, renal failure, or liver disease might also be at risk
    • People who are pregnant should be monitored since they are known to be at risk with severe viral illness

The CDC further cautions that “many conditions can cause a person to be immunocompromised, including cancer treatment, smoking, bone marrow or organ transplantation, immune deficiencies, poorly controlled HIV or AIDS, and prolonged use of corticosteroids and other immune weakening medications.”

None of those risk factors mention any risk related to industry compliance with EPA guidelines designed to protect the public. In fact, the EPA order would do much to increase said risk factors. The EPA is, in effect, placing polluter profits above public health during a time when our health is at grave risk: during a global pandemic.

EPA order heightens environmental justice communities’ COVID-19 risk

As these CDC guidelines indicate, environmental justice communities could be specifically vulnerable to COVID-19, and are going to endure more health challenges from EPA’s latest shenanigans.

For example, African Americans are three times more likely to die from asthma than white Americans, and that increases to 10 times for children. African Americans also have the highest rate of deaths from heart disease. African American women and low-income women have an increased risk of premature births and infant deaths than their white counterparts, and premature babies have a greater incidence of chronic health issues, including lung and breathing problems.

In the last four years, the actions engineered by this administration to put profits over people have been especially detrimental to environmental justice communities, which include people of color, poor people and our indigenous brothers and sisters, along with people whose vulnerabilities include chronic and acute health conditions, homelessness and other high-risk situations.

People living near hazardous facilities already experience adverse health effects from exposures, including respiratory effects, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, increased cardiac disease and others. Because of the state of their health, these groups are more at risk from COVID-19. To allow facilities to increase the amount of pollutants they release into the environment, particularly since there are no real repercussions, puts these communities at ground zero!

In addition, the EPA is inviting the public to serve as monitors for these facilities. On its website, the EPA states, “Members of the public can help protect our environment by identifying and reporting environmental violations.”

Over the years, the environmental justice community has REGULARLY reported harmful actions to EPA, including illegal releases into the air and water, along with increased incidences of adverse health conditions like cancer and asthma in the community, only to have them ignored, dismissed, or unsatisfactorily addressed.

What would make us believe that the EPA would take any action on violations reported by the public when, ahead of any violation, it is already saying it will not! Their reasoning here is beyond understanding and is clearly an empty invitation.

EPA muzzles public comment

Notably, the EPA has not provided a public comment opportunity on this reprehensible order, but says it will post a notification on its website at least seven days prior to terminating the new policy. In this way, the EPA is continuing business as usual–denying the public an opportunity to have input in decisions that place their lives in extreme jeopardy. And the short window before the policy’s termination doesn’t give the public much time to comment on the harm it caused and why the order was a bad idea.

When decisions like this are made by the EPA, they should be based on sound scientific facts and scientific opinion focused on protecting the public, not on efforts to protect polluters. They should also allow for public input before the decision is finalized.

We need actions directed at assisting communities suffering adverse health effects before, during and after this pandemic, not actions that continue the administration’s relentless assault on science-based rules and environmental safeguards that protect the public from harm.

This administration is focused on fast-tracking environmental regulations, in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, that offer no protection to the public and without opportunity for public comment. As such, the EPA should consider providing opportunities for input on environmental regulations and, whenever possible, give the public the ability to comment on decisions that have the potential to adversely affect them.