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While health experts around the country are focused on containing the spread of the coronavirus, the Environmental Protection Agency is making changes that could both worsen the impact of the current crisis and hamstring responses to future pandemics. In addition to moving full speed ahead with a plan to limit the use of research based on private health data, the EPA is temporarily lifting requirements on enforcement of pollution laws.
The change in enforcement is particularly scary for people like Pat Gonzales. Gonzales, who is 53, has had asthma since she moved near several oil refineries in Pasadena, Texas, 20 years ago. Her three children, who were raised in the town southeast of Houston, have also developed breathing problems while living in Pasadena. Because of the sustained effects of air pollution, which appear to make people particularly vulnerable to the effects of the virus, Gonzales has been staying inside, washing her hands, and worrying about the health of her family and everyone else with compromised lungs in Pasadena. “If we get this, it won’t be easy to take care of,” she said.
EPA data backs up Gonzales’s sense that her family’s breathing problems are “all because of the refineries,” as she told me. In October, the EPA measured benzene levels at the fence line of Pasadena Refining Systems, which is about a mile from Gonzales’s home, at almost twice an exposure limit set by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Pasadena Refining Systems, which is owned by Chevron, is one of at least 10 refineries in Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Texas whose emissions of the deadly pollutant benzene exceeded safety levels in the last quarter of 2019.
The environmental agency, citing the coronavirus pandemic, announced that it was giving polluters a free pass on the enforcement of pollution rules last week. The policy waives many of the usual requirements for monitoring, testing, sampling, and lab analysis of emissions of chemicals. And that could make it much harder to know if the Pasadena refinery — or any industrial facility — is pumping out dangerous amounts of pollution.
Asked about the change, an EPA spokesperson confirmed in an email that the “EPA will not seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting requirements” but noted that the agency would do this only “if, on a case-by-case basis, EPA agrees that such noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.” The email also said, “This action was necessary to avoid tying up EPA staff time with questions about routine monitoring and reporting requirements and instead allow EPA to focus on continued protection of human health and the environment.”
But rolling back the enforcement of environmental laws is only one of the steps the agency is quietly taking during the coronavirus outbreak that could worsen both the impact of the current crisis and future pandemics. These critical protections are being weakened while the public health experts who have typically fought against them have been instead focused on the urgent threat of the virus.
“They’re taking political advantage of a crisis when they know it’s more difficult to respond,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Because a lack of enforcement can lead to increased releases of pollution, the decision to suspend many of the normal requirements for pollution control may put polluted communities at particular risk from Covid-19 even as the virus spread around the country. “If limits are exceeded, then companies have to fix it,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “If it’s not documented, they don’t have to. It’s a see-no-evil situation.”
According a memo Susan Bodine, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, released last week, the suspension of usual enforcement requirements is a response to widespread staffing shortages. “The consequences of the pandemic may affect facility operations and the availability of key staff and contractors and the ability of laboratories to timely analyze samples and provide results,” it said.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing the chemical industry, came out in support of the enforcement suspension, which it said “is needed because essential personnel and resources must be devoted to maintaining production and meeting increased demand for vital chemical products such as sanitizers, disinfectants, and plastics for consumers, governments and the health care community.”
But environmental groups are pushing back against the idea that the fast-spreading virus justifies increased emissions of pollution. “To treat monitoring like a paperwork exercise is really misleading,” said Schaeffer. His organization, along with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Public Citizen, Environment Texas, and other groups, wrote to Bodine last week to ask the EPA to post online any agreements with regulated companies to delay or reduce environmental requirements, including “a clear explanation of how the coronavirus pandemic made such decisions necessary and what steps facilities will take to reduce their health impacts.”
While Schaeffer acknowledged the possibility that the spiraling health crisis could leave some companies short-staffed, he worried that the blanket exemption would allow other companies to ignore environmental rules without consequence. “If everyone’s at work refining oil and making chemicals, and it’s just your compliance staff that’s been coronavirused-out, then they’ll need to explain that,” he said.
The environmental groups’ letter also pointed out the riskiness of moves that could increase dangerous pollution during a global pandemic. “Actions that obscure the release [of] toxins or other air pollutants that exacerbate asthma, breathing difficulty, and cardiovascular problems in the midst of a pandemic that can cause respiratory failure is irresponsible from a public health perspective.”
Indeed, the decision to scale back enforcement, including the reporting of air pollution emissions, may be deadly for people living near polluting facilities beyond Pasadena. “Fence-line communities are already at an increased risk for developing devastating health outcomes like cancer,” said Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund. Craft said she was also particularly concerned about communities that are heavily exposed to the air pollutant ethylene oxide, a gas that is released as the result of industrial processing and the sterilization of medical equipment that can decrease immunity and increase rates of cancer. Underlying conditions increase the likelihood of serious consequences and death from infection with the coronavirus.
In the census tract in St. John, Louisiana, that has by far the highest cancer risk from air pollution of any in the country, the virus is already spreading, according to resident Robert Taylor. “We have families who have both heads of the households dying, father and daughter dying within hours of each other. It’s devastating,” said Taylor, who is 79. Residents of St. John have been chronically exposed to dozens of air pollutants, including the carcinogen chloroprene. “It’s frightening because we know we’re so compromised as a result of the pollution that we have. I have friends and relatives who have been infected with the virus,” said Taylor. “People don’t know what to do.”
Meanwhile, even as the nation is hanging on the words of epidemiologists to steer us through the current crisis, the EPA has been proceeding with a rule that would severely limit the use of epidemiology, or the study of how disease is distributed throughout populations. While previous versions of what the agency is calling the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science Rule” limited the use of epidemiological research based on private individual health data, the latest version — released on March 18, as the virus was already spreading through the U.S. — goes much further.
“It’s frightening because we know we’re so compromised as a result of the pollution that we have.”
The new, broadened rule would limit the use of research based on confidential health information not just in regulatory decisions about such things as air quality standards, car exhaust, and water protections, but also in what it calls “influential scientific information,” a category that includes everything from reports to risk assessments, toxicological profiles of substances, and health and safety assessments.
Although the proposed rule can clearly be traced back to a tobacco industry strategy to evade regulation, the EPA has defended it as an innocent effort to make data available so it can be validated. But science and public health advocates, who have repeatedly pointed out that the rule would make it difficult to use most health research, are now pointing to the bitter irony of the EPA’s effort to push it through during what may be the worst health crisis in our nation’s history.
“Here we are relying on epidemiology to figure out what’s going on, and in the midst of all this, they’re trying to jam through this proposal that would say that this kind of information couldn’t be used to craft regulations,” said Rosenberg of the Union for Concerned Scientists. Rosenberg added that there were many possible uses of epidemiology that would help not only during the current crisis, but also during future disease outbreaks.
“Suppose you wanted to look at hot spots where you have very high numbers of Covid-19 cases so you could take steps to address that specific problem,” said Rosenberg. “The only way you’d know that is epidemiology.” But under the proposed rule, he said, “you wouldn’t be able to give that information full weight because the data has to be public. But that data can never be public. No one is going to want their test results publicly available.”
In a letter sent to EPA Administer Andrew Wheeler last week, Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., cited other examples of “studies that could be usefully relied upon during a pandemic or other crisis” that would be systematically excluded by the EPA’s new rule. Carper highlighted research on the persistence of coronaviruses and the fatality of other viruses, as well as studies that show that air pollution exposure increases the risk of developing lower respiratory infection while urging Wheeler to withdraw the rule.
Asked about Carper’s request, the EPA provided the following emailed response: “The Senator, whether it be by letter or press statement continues to make patently false and misleading claims about the proposed Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule. Transparency in science that enables independent validation of scientific conclusions is important to advancing the Agency’s mission. In no way does the proposed rule or the supplemental notice suppress research or censor scientists.”
The EPA response also noted that “our most important environmental statutes provide EPA with authority to issue emergency orders or respond to address emergencies to protect human health and the environment, and this proposed rule would not limit or impede EPA’s authority to undertake such responses.”
In any case, the EPA has declined Carper’s request to withdraw the rule. The environmental agency has also refused to extend the 30-day comment period for the rule, which is set to end on April 17, or to hold virtual hearings. In their absence, the Union of Concerned Scientists is planning to host its own.