Environmentalists Object to Broad EPA Waivers for Polluters During Coronavirus Crisis

Response to Trump Administration’s Plan to Relax Public Health Protections for Oil Refineries and Other Industries

Washington, D.C. – A coalition of environmentalists sent a letter to EPA objecting to a new Trump Administration policy, released today, that relaxes environmental compliance rules for petrochemical plants and other big polluters during the coronavirus crisis.

“It is not clear why refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities that continue to operate and keep their employees on the production line will no longer have the staff or time they need to comply with environmental laws,” said the statement, which was written by Eric Schaeffer of the Environmental Integrity Project, former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA.

Co-signers of the letter included Luke Metzger, Executive Director, Environment Texas; Cynthia Giles, former EPA Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance; Mike Tidwell, Executive Director Chesapeake Climate Action Network; Phillip Musegaas of Potomac Riverkeeper Network; and more than a dozen others (see below).

The environmental organizations voiced their concerns in response to an announcement today that the Trump Administration EPA will “provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions.”

“Excusing the potential release of excess toxic air pollutants and other pollution that exacerbates asthma, breathing difficulty, and cardiovascular problems in the midst of a pandemic that can cause respiratory failure is irresponsible from a public health perspective,” the letter states.

The Environmental Integrity Project released a report last year documenting the sharp drop in environmental enforcement during the Trump Administration.

For a copy of EPA’s new policy of enforcement during the coronavirus crisis, click here.

The full text of the letter from the environmentalists is below:


Dear Susan Bodine, EPA Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance:

Dear Assistant Administrator Bodine:

We write to oppose EPA’s apparent plan to waive certain environmental compliance requirements for petrochemical plants and other polluting industries in response to the coronavirus. While it may be reasonable in limited circumstances for EPA to exercise discretion on a case-by-case basis to temporarily refrain from enforcement where the pandemic has clearly undermined a facility’s ability to comply, we oppose any blanket or advance waiver of environmental requirements for several reasons.

It is not clear why refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities that continue to operate and keep their employees on the production line will no longer have the staff or time they need to comply with environmental laws.  Again, EPA can grant waivers where sources can show how the coronavirus makes compliance with certain requirements impossible. But what is the basis for presuming that the pandemic means companies can no longer comply with environmental rules while they continue to operate and process all other forms of corporate “paperwork,” e.g., applications for permits to expand, detailed comments to support the rollback of various environmental rules, and contracts for the sale or purchase of goods and services?

Contrary to assertions by the American Petroleum Industry (API) and other interest groups, the suspension of monitoring and reporting requirements would have a very specific impact on public health and safety in many cases.  Allowing a company to postpone the repair of equipment that leaks toxic gases into the atmosphere, as API has suggested, leaves the public exposed to those pollutants for longer periods of time, increases the risk of fire and explosion, and is not just a paperwork concern.  For another example, Clean Air Act rules limiting hazardous air pollution require refineries to monitor benzene levels at their fencelines, and to take corrective action whenever annual concentrations of this deadly pollutant exceed 9 micrograms per cubic meter.

Monitoring reports reveal that at least 10 refineries in Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Texas exceeded this annual threshold in the fourth quarter of 2019. Pasadena Refining Systems in Texas reported that benzene levels along part of their boundary averaged 565 micrograms per cubic meter between October 16 and October 30 of 2019, or nearly six times the ten-hour exposure limit recommended by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.  Take away this monitoring, and you will leave both plant workers and communities blind to these hazards, and forestall the corrective action required when benzene levels get too high. Actions that obscure the   release 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.

The Environmental Protection Agency has not shown the same concern for the impact the coronavirus has had on the ability of community and public interest groups to respond to various proposals to weaken environmental standards. In fact, EPA recently denied a request to extend the comment period for the so-called “science transparency” rule, at a time when public health officials who may oppose that decision have had to turn their attention to coronavirus. Our organizations face the same challenges keeping up with the rulemaking process as do large corporations, but with fewer resources.  As pointed out by Mustafa Santiago Ali, EPA’s former Associate Administrator for Environmental Justice, communities already hardest hit by air pollution and particularly vulnerable to the virus may have no meaningful opportunity to comment during the current pandemic.

We understand the coronavirus is a public health emergency that may require a flexible response from EPA.  That response must be tailored to specific and appropriate circumstances and not offer a blanket waiver of requirements that many companies that are up and running may have no trouble meeting.

We ask that EPA post online any agreements with regulated sources to delay or reduce environmental requirements, with a clear explanation of how the coronavirus pandemic made such decisions necessary and what steps facilities will take to reduce their health impacts.  This would include the public posting of any “no action assurances” EPA issues for industries, along with an explanation of how the action is consistent with EPA’s written policy against no action assurances.

In all cases, EPA should provide a clear explanation of how the coronavirus pandemic made such agreements or no action assurances necessary.  EPA should also provide notice and a meaningful opportunity to comment on any proposed changes to consent decrees, and ensure that states authorized to implement federal environmental rules do not inappropriately waive those requirements and are equally transparent about their decisions.

Thank you for considering our views.

Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director, Environmental Integrity Project
Mary Greene, Deputy Director, Environmental Integrity Project
Luke Metzger, Executive Director, Environment Texas
Mike Tidwell, Executive Director, Chesapeake Climate Action Network
Cynthia Giles, former EPA Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance
Jonny Vasic, Executive Director, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment
Dr. Elena Craft, Toxicologist and Senior Director for Climate and Health, Environmental Defense Fund Phillip Musegaas, Vice President of Programs and Litigation, Potomac Riverkeeper Network
Adrian Shelley, Texas Office Director, Public Citizen
David Masur, Executive Director, PennEnvironment
Anne Rolfes, Director, Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Rebecca Sobel, Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner, Wild Earth Guardians
Dr. Indra Frank, Environmental Health & Water Policy Director, Hoosier Environmental Council
Katyln Schmidt, Staff Attorney, Waterkeepers Chesapeake
Terry Spence, Executive Director, Socially Responsible Agricultural Project
David Reed, Co-Executive Director, Chesapeake Legal Alliance
Hannah Connor, Senior Attorney, Center for Biological Diversity
John Rumpler, Senior Attorney, Environment America
Scott Edwards, Director Food & Water Justice, Food & Water Watch
Ted Evgeniadis, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper
Robin Schneider, Executive Director, Texas Campaign for the Environment
Jenn Aiosa, Executive Director, Blue Water Baltimore
Pat Gallagher, Legal Director, Sierra Club
Kelly Hunter Foster, Senior Attorney, Waterkeeper Alliance
Kristin Alexander, Executive Director, Potomac Valley Audubon Society
Aaron Mintzes, Senior Policy Counsel, Earthworks
Rev. Sandra L. Strauss, Director of Advocacy & Ecumenical Outreach, Pennsylvania Council of Churches
Robin Blakeman, Project Coordinator, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
Bill Johnson, Rappahannock Group Co-Chair, Virginia Chapter Secretary, ExCom member, and Fracking Issues Co-Chair
Dalal Anne Aboulhosn, Deputy Legislative Director, Sierra Club
Abigail M. Jones, Senior Attorney, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture)
Drew Ball, Director, Environment North Carolina
Sara Schneeberg Robinson, Retired Former EPA OGC Assistant General Counsel
Gary Zuckett, Executive Director, WV Citizen Action Group
Eric Engle, Chairman, Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action
Lindsay Newsome, Program Director, Virginia Association for Biological Farming
Douglas John Imbrogno, Editor, Changing Climate Times
Lynn Thorp, National Campaigns Director, Clean Water Action/Clean Water Fund
Kim Coble, Executive Director, Maryland League of Conservation Voters
James Pfiffer, Executive Director, Chemung River Friends
Mary E Smith, President, Cleanwater Linganore, Inc
Robert K. Musil, Ph.D., President & CEO, Rachel Carson Council
Bob Dreher, Senior Vice President, Conservation Programs
Susan O’Handley, President, Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society
Larry V. Thomas, President, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy
Laura Daniel Davis, Chief of Policy and Advocacy, National Wildlife Federation
Dustin White, Project Coordinator, Ohio Valley Environmental
Kristin Reilly, Director, Choose Clean Water Coalition
Lisa DePaoli, Outreach Coordinator, Center for Coalfield Justice
Selah Raines, Director, Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance
Darryl Molina Sarmiento, Executive Director, Communities for a Better Environment
Alice Melendez, Local Coordinator, Extinction Rebellion Kentucky
Barb Trader, Facilitator, Multifaith Alliance of Climate Stewards
Erin Kitchell, US Environmental Justice Program Director, Namati
Heather Cantino, Steering Committee Chair, Athens County’s Future Action Network
Beka Economopoulos, Executive Director, The Natural History Museum
Kathy Phillips, Executive Director, Assateague Coastal Trust
Freeda Cathcart, Director, The Rural Project
Russell Chisholm, Co-Chair, Protect Our Water Heritage Rights
Ann Coren, Steering Committee, Transition Howard County
PhilipIrwin, Founder, Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection
Vernon Haltom, Executive Director, Coal River Mountain Watch
Jeanne Braha, Executive Director, Rock Creek Conservancy
Lisa Alexander, Executive Director, Audubon Naturalist Society
Bakeyah S. Nelson, Executive Director, Air Alliance Houston

List of names updated at 11:00 am on April 1, 2020


Media contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, (443) 510-2574