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

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.

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 because it is broadly written, it could potentially influence companies’ actions in a large range of industries, including tech.

It may also create new challenges for researchers and scientists, since while the policy is in effect, companies are being asked only to make data from monitoring available to the EPA if requested by the agency.

The EPA said 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.

“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 places more onus for adhering to environmental regulations on the private sector. Depending on how the policy is carried out and how long it lasts, it may impact the work of tech companies that are developing tools to measure air pollution (for example, Google’s “Project Air View,” which launched last year to provide air quality data gathered with startup Aclima’s sensors to scientists and researchers), or that focus on environmental monitoring and compliance.

Susan Parker Bodine, the assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance at the EPA, wrote in a memo about the policy that “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.”

In July 2019, data released by the EPA showed that the number of unhealthy air days in major U.S. cities had increased over the past two years, even as combined emissions of major air pollutants fell.

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.”