EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency’s response to relaxing enforcement due to the noval coronavirus pandemic has been “very mild” compared to the Obama administration’s similar approach to natural disasters.
In an interview on Thursday, Wheeler said the pandemic has put the Environmental Protection Agency in the unusual position of handling requests for guidance from all 50 states, as opposed to the small handful of states that it had to respond to in past crises.
In contrast, Wheeler pointed to the EPA under former President Barack Obama, when the agency issued 13 separate enforcement discretion actions and five fuel waivers in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which he said mainly only affected four states in 2012.
“They went above and beyond what we did for those four states during the hurricane,” Wheeler said, speaking by telephone from his office, where he said he has been going every single day.
On March 26, the EPA offered temporary relief to facilities affected by the coronavirus pandemic, saying it won’t seek penalties for certain missed obligations.
The new guidance acknowledges that some entities can’t perform routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification activities.
The guidance, which took effect retroactively to March 13, has no end date.
Susan Bodine, the EPA’s assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, told Bloomberg Law that the policy was left open-ended because the “situation is very fluid.”
“We don’t know when this crisis will be over,” Bodine said. “What we are paying very close attention to is when state and local health departments let people go back to work because then we won’t need any enforcement discretion,” she said.
Bodine emphasized the agency will post notifications about relaxed enforcement waivers online for the public to view.
A group of 11 Democratic senators made that request of Wheeler on Wednesday.
Wheeler also said he doesn’t think bad actors have any greater opportunity to flout environmental rules under the temporary policy than they ordinarily do.
“We’re always going to have some bad actors, and we go after them,” he said. The EPA has been increasing the number of criminal enforcement cases it pursues, according to Wheeler.
He theorized that political motivations may be driving environmental groups to criticize the enforcement guidance.
“It’s sad that there are people out there trying to politicize a very routine enforcement discretion that we do on a regional basis whenever there’s an emergency such as a hurricane,” Wheeler said.
In a Thursday letter to Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Bodine wrote that the EPA is continuing to enforce its regulations. The letter was also sent to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).
“The agency strongly disagrees with those who argue that a more appropriate response to this public health crisis would be to force facilities to either shut down or to put people at risk by keeping all their workers at the facility at the same time” to keep performing routine monitoring and reporting, Bodine wrote.
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