The Environmental Protection Agency will put companies and specific facilities in charge of monitoring their own compliance with environmental laws during the novel coronavirus emergency, according to officials.
This move has led critics to accuse the agency of backing off its role to prevent uncontrolled pollution or other violations.
EPA argued the change was needed because of staffing shortages that facilities, like power plants, said has made it more difficult to keep up with deadlines and accountability requirements.
The agency will still enforce criminal violations as well as follow usual enforcement procedures for some programs like managing Superfund sites, according to guidance on how EPA will use its enforcement discretion.
"We were hearing from a number of facilities around the country where they simply don't have the necessary personnel in their facilities to make those reports in a timely basis," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told reporters Thursday afternoon.
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Wheeler said they will also still enforce instances that could present an imminent public health risk and that the flexibility is more geared toward administrative requirements. Companies will be required to track their own violations, if they occur, and document how the violation was related to COVID-19, through staffing shortages or other issues.
Environmental groups accused the agency of giving polluters a free pass because of the pandemic, saying that without federal oversight companies could skimp on recording information on releases of air or water pollution.
"This EPA statement is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future," Cynthia Giles, former assistant EPA administrator for enforcement and compliance, said in a statement. "It 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."
She added, "And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was."
But Susan Bodine, assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance, said facilities will still face enforcement and possible penalties for environmental violations during the emergency. She noted that the policy will put the burden on facilities to notify EPA and state agencies of any violations.
"If you do have violations of your permit, you're still obligated to meet your permit limits you're supposed to do everything possible, Bodine said. "And after the fact the agency will take that all into consideration but there isn't a promise of no penalties in those kinds of situations."
"If you have an acute risk, if you have an imminent threat ... the facility has to come in and talk to their regulator, their authorized state or come into the agency," she continued. "And the reason for that is that we want to, we want to put all of our resources into keeping these facilities safe keeping communities safe."
Bodine said if entities are struggling, "they have to come in and talk to us."
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- How it started and how to protect yourself: coronavirus explained
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- Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: coronavirus map
In response to the outbreak, EPA has stepped up its work to approve disinfectant products that can kill the virus and worked to prevent unapproved products from being brought into the country.
Wheeler said EPA is also working with manufacturers to maintain the supply chain of ingredients to keep up with demand for disinfectants.