This Wednesday, nine U.S. states filed suit against the EPA for weakening pollution reporting and compliance rules during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The states contend that the EPA has exceeded its authority in undoing these regulations. Moreover, they argue the decision endangers Americans by increasing exposure to pollution in the midst of a respiratory virus pandemic.
Environmental protections the first to go amid pandemic
The EPA began these rollbacks on March 26th, allowing polluters to self-police during the pandemic. Specifically, polluters can now avoid reporting or complying with pollution regulations.
The agency’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Ensurance, Susan Parker Bodine, defended this decision. Because of the restraints of social distancing, she argued the COVID-19 pandemic obstructs polluters’ ability to fully comply with EPA regulations.
The EPA’s Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, also argued in favor of the rollbacks. “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,” he said in a press release.
The rollbacks now allow polluters to operate against existing regulations and evade reporting their pollution levels. This sort of noncompliance will go without enforcement for the extent of the pandemic.
Although these rollbacks come as no surprise, they are only a few among several cuts to environmental protections since the pandemic began.
Namely, the Trump administration has already refused to tighten rules surrounding soot pollution, which causes added respiratory risk. In late March, the administration also weakened fuel efficiency standards and advancing a proposal that would dismantle mercury pollution regulations.
Now, the EPA has used the guise of the coronavirus to further undo key environmental protections on pollution.
The EPA taken to court
Environmental advocacy groups and politicians alike immediately criticized the statement. Among them, California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, pointed out that the EPA’s relaxed pollution rules will disproportionately harm racial minorities.
“Minority communities [face] disproportionate exposure to poor air quality, including particulate matter,” Becerra said in a letter to Bodine. “Absolving industrial polluters from existing environmental compliance obligations could exacerbate this historic racial disparity,” he continued.
Accordingly, Becerra crafted the litigation to highlight three central arguments.
First, the decision did not incorporate public or stakeholder input, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. Moreover, there was no evident need for such heavy changes to justify the decision. Lastly, the EPA does not have the authority to contradict key environmental laws, including the Clear Air Act.
Filed in a federal court in New York, the states of California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Virginia joined the lawsuit to challenge the decision.
If successful, the lawsuit will reverse the rollbacks and block the EPA from reintroducing similar adjustments.