Thousands of oil and gas operations, government facilities and other sites in the United States have obtained permission to stop monitoring for hazardous emissions – or otherwise bypass rules intended to protect health and the environment – because of the coronavirus outbreak, the Associated Press news agency has found.
The report said US President Donald Trump’s administration paved the way for the reduced monitoring on March 26 after being pressured by the oil and gas industry, which said lockdowns and physical distancing during the pandemic made it difficult to comply with pollution rules.
States are responsible for much of the oversight of federal environmental laws, and many followed with their own policies.
A two-month review by AP found that waivers were granted in more than 3,000 cases, representing the overwhelming majority of requests citing the outbreak. Hundreds were approved for oil and gas companies.
It followed approval for less environmental monitoring at some Texas refineries and at an army depot dismantling warheads armed with nerve gas in Kentucky, manure accumulation and the mass disposal of livestock carcasses at farms in Iowa and Minnesota, and other increased risks to communities as governments eased enforcement over smokestacks, medical waste shipments, sewage plants, oilfields and chemical plants.
AP reached out to all 50 states citing open-records laws. All but one, New York, provided at least partial information, reporting the data in differing ways and with varying levels of detail.
Almost all those requesting waivers told regulators they wanted to minimise risks for workers and the public during a pandemic – although a handful reported they were trying to cut costs.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says its clemency does not authorise exceeding pollution limits. Regulators will pursue those who “did not act responsibly under the circumstances”, EPA spokesperson James Hewitt said.
But environmentalists and public health experts say it may be impossible to determine the impact.
“The harm from this policy is already done,” said Cynthia Giles, former EPA assistant administrator under the Obama administration.
EPA said it will end the clemency this month.
The findings run counter to statements in late June by EPA official Susan Bodine, who told legislators the pandemic was not causing “a significant impact on routine compliance, monitoring and reporting” and that industry was not widely seeking relief from monitoring.
Separately, EPA enforcement data shows 40 percent fewer tests of smokestacks were conducted in March and April compared with the same period last year, according to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a network of academics and non-profits.