EPA Suspends Enforcement of Environmental Laws

The Trump administration uses the coronavirus crisis as cover to help polluters

By Paul Rauber

March 28, 2020


Until late afternoon on Thursday, March 26, the Trump administration's tack on environmental matters in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic was run-of-the-mill grifting, oil-and-gas fluffing, and regulatory sleight of hand. While millions sheltered in place, the EPA forged ahead with its effort to weaken automobile fuel-efficiency standards. The national parks were shuttering, but the Interior Department was leasing more public lands for oil and gas development. The United States led the world in COVID-19 infections, but the campaign to gut the National Environmental Policy Act continued unabated. The moves were outrageous and scandalous, but sadly par for the course for the most anti-environmental administration in US history.

Then the EPA upped its game by dropping notice that for the duration of the pandemic, the agency would suspend enforcement of environmental laws. "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," the order said. Such situations apparently include worker shortages and social distancing restrictions. The suspension is retroactive to March 13, and while it is said to be temporary, no clearer end date is specified. 

In a statement, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said, "EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment but recognizes 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.” On Friday, insisting that "the Trump EPA is acting responsibly during a pandemic," he attacked The New York Times reporting on his order: 

FAKE NEWS: @NYT is spreading inaccurate info & misleading the public. That’s not what America needs right now.
TRUTH: EPA is working hard to protect public health & the enviro while providing a small degree of flexibility during these extraordinary times. https://t.co/ZIPML7Jt0M

— EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler (@EPAAWheeler) March 27, 2020

The reaction from environmental groups has been unsparing. “To use a public health crisis to justify actions that will result in even greater threats to public health is unconscionable," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Action. "Sadly, from this malicious president, it isn’t surprising."

Daniel Estrin, general counsel at Waterkeeper Alliance, noted, "At the same time it’s telling polluters not to worry about enforcement, EPA is continuing to refuse basic requests from the public to extend comment periods on proposed rules. This double standard shows that this administration’s EPA continues to put a greater value on helping polluting industries than on fulfilling its mission of protecting human health and the environment." 

“As the country focuses on protecting public health and safety from COVID-19," said Sierra Club's executive director Michael Brune, "Donald Trump and Andrew Wheeler are exploiting this pandemic to make toxic pollution legal." 

Barack Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel once said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. What I mean by that is it's an opportunity to do things you could not do before." While the United States suffers from a crisis of Trump's own making, his administration is seizing the opportunity it presents.