The COVID-19 pandemic has turned society onto its head. Our education system, our economy and the very way we live our lives have all been severely impacted. Faced with this alarming shift of the status quo, the more optimistic among us have begun to notice that, with fewer people on our roads and many of our factories closing down temporarily, our air quality seems to be improving. Likewise, quarantined cities around the world have seen coyotes, deer and other local wildlife reclaim the streets. In humanity’s absence, the environment seems to be slowly healing itself.
Unfortunately, the curious circumstances brought on by the pandemic are unlikely to benefit nature as much as we hope they will — at least not if our current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has anything to say about it. Late last month, the agency announced that it would suspend the enforcement of several health and environmental protections, citing the continued spread of COVID-19 as the reason for the controversial decision. This blatantly defies the EPA’s stated mission of protecting human and environmental health.
The Trump era EPA’s track record has been less than stellar. The agency began attempting to roll back environmental laws shortly after the current president took office, and it has been wrought with controversy ever since. It only makes sense; Andrew R. Wheeler, the current chief of the EPA, is a former coal lobbyist, and it is readily apparent to most onlookers that he fits snugly in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry, consistently taking the side of big business instead of public health.
In a twisted way, the COVID-19 outbreak has presented the agency with the opportunity of a lifetime. EPA officials have expressed their fear that industries will have a difficult time following the suspended environmental regulations for the duration of the pandemic. In a memorandum, Susan Parker Bodine, an official in the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, argued that the severity of the pandemic might prevent inspections from being carried out properly.
Likewise, they insist that the pandemic could impact “the availability of key staff and contractors and the ability of laboratories to timely analyze samples and provide results.” The oil and coal industries have also argued that they may be facing staff issues soon due to coronavirus-related illnesses. Put simply, a major concern is that some big businesses may not have the manpower to follow through on activities required of them by environmental law. Under these circumstances, the EPA has deemed it necessary to throw out the regulations almost entirely.
Of course, the claim that these industries will be unable to follow environmental law due to a staff shortage serves as an embarrassingly weak excuse. The U.S. fossil fuel industry receives tens of billions of dollars in annual subsidies — if their inspectors are sick due to the novel coronavirus, they can surely afford to hire new staff for the time being. Environmental compliance inspections require limited human contact, less than what a grocery store worker undergoes on any given day, so it is unreasonable to suggest that nobody would be able to fill these roles.
The argument that the laboratories will be unable to analyze the relevant data in a timely manner also falls short. If lab technicians require more time to analyze data then they should be given more time, not stripped of their role entirely. In desperate times like these, companies should be forced to improve, not relax. If a laboratory team only has half their typical staff due to COVID-19, they should be given double the time to carry out their duties.
The fact of the matter is that many businesses, including businesses significantly smaller than those in the fossil fuel industry, are being forced to cope with the effects of the pandemic with much less support. Millions of restaurants and other startups risk permanent closure if the pandemic does not end soon. At the moment, it looks like nobody is going to bail them out. Despite this, essential workers still put on their uniforms and show up for work. There is no earthly reason why these $100 billion industries would be unable to hire workers to do the same.
Faced with criticism from health officials and environmentalists, EPA officials assured concerned citizens that this “policy does not provide leniency for intentional criminal violations of law.” That is to say, the agency is not encouraging big businesses to commit environmental crimes. On paper, businesses are still required to document their reasons for skirting environmental law.
Unfortunately, the Trump era EPA has done little to earn society’s trust, and with its history of bailing out the fossil fuel industry, it seems unlikely that the agency will actually seek justice against those who pollute haphazardly. There are no firm guidelines for what constitutes a good reason to ignore environmental law, and the EPA could very well give these big businesses a free pass at the end of the day.
The severity of this issue cannot be overstated. Without environmental law being enforced, industrialized areas, chemical transfer stations and oil fields will have little reason to exercise caution when handling pollutants. As if the destruction of the environment itself isn’t a good enough reason to reconsider the suspension of environmental law, the EPA’s callous leniency may also have more immediate, dire effects on American citizens. COVID-19 affects the host’s respiratory system, and pollution increases one’s risk of respiratory illness. As countries all around the world battle desperately to flatten the curve, unrestricted oil and coal companies may be working against us.
The world’s leading climate scientists warn that we have little over a decade left before climate change passes its event horizon and becomes irreversible. We do not have time to relax our environmental laws. Unfortunately, the EPA is unlikely to change under the Trump administration, so it is up to the American people to push for greater transparency and call out businesses that try to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to pollute. It is easy to feel hopeless in our present circumstances, but we must do all we can to hold these organizations accountable.
The health of our planet is being threatened, and if we want our children to grow up and witness the wonders of the world as we do today, now is not the time to ease our regulations. As the name Environmental Protection Agency suggests, the EPA is supposed to protect the environment. Until the day comes that their priorities are corrected, the American people must watch both the agency, and the industries it protects, vigilantly.