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EDITORIAL: The EPA needs to do its job, even during a pandemic

York Dispatch Editorial Board

It would be nice to think that businesses will do the right thing without having to be monitored. To trust that people will always have the good of the community in mind, even when no one is watching.

Of course, we all know that doesn't happen. Again and again, for nearly 50 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has called out companies that polluted our air, ground and water, forcing industries to clean up their acts.

But suddenly, last week, the EPA decided that normal business practices could be waived because the country is in crisis over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette, left, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Mary B. Neumayr, stand as EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler looks up after signing the Affordable Clean Energy Rule during a media availability at the Environmental Protection Agency, Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in Washington. Wheeler signed a repeal of one of the Obama era's two biggest climate change initiatives, the Clean Power Plan, and adopting an alternative plan that would loosen regulations on the plants. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In a March 26 memo from Susan Parker Bodine, the assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, the EPA told its "governmental and private sector partners" that, while companies are expected to adhere to their environmental compliance plans, if there is any noncompliance because of COVID-19 personnel shortages or anything of that nature, it's OK. They can just report what happened, and the EPA is sure that they will get back into compliance as quickly as possible. 

Not that the EPA will know, because the agency is also saying it will understand if companies are unable "to perform routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification" because of the pandemic. The agency says businesses should let them know if these routines can't be followed, or if they can't tell the EPA, they should keep records internally, in case anyone asks.

We understand that the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing shutdown has upended everyone's lives. We're dealing with the day-to-day realities, too. 

But the EPA was created for a reason: Someone has to make sure that companies aren't spreading harmful pollutants into the world.

PennEnvironment raised the alarm about the new way of doing things at the EPA.

"The EPA’s decision to stop enforcing key provisions of our environmental laws puts Pennsylvania’s air, water, and health at the mercy of polluters. Our cornerstone environmental protections like the Clean Air Act depend on monitoring and reporting. Without this monitoring, we have no idea what facilities are releasing into the air we breathe," David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, said in a statement.

Masur pointed out that Pennsylvania's fracking industry in particular has a host of harmful emissions at every point in the process, and while there are procedures in place to limit those emissions and the potential harm they could cause, without monitoring, leaks will go undetected.

This Sept. 21, 2017 file photo shows the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Building in Washington. Criminal prosecution and convictions of polluters haven fallen to quarter-century lows under the Trump administration. That’s according to Justice Department figures for fiscal year 2019. The EPA says it’s improved in some other enforcement categories. But a former EPA agent in charge says three years of declines show the agency dismantling criminal enforcement. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

You would think that, at a time when everyone is concerned about a major public health issue, the Trump administration would want to reassure people that it is doing what it can to ensure the safety of our air and water. Instead, it is using the COVID-19 pandemic to move forward with its stated agenda of getting rid of as many regulations on industry as possible.

On Tuesday, it made the final ruling to water down Obama-era mileage standards that would have encouraged the production of electric cars, and conservation groups are suing the EPA for failing to enforce pollution limits from the Clean Water Act affecting the Chesapeake Bay. 

To use this disease as another excuse to allow businesses to potentially release pollutants into our air and water is unfathomable. And yet that's what's happening. 

Telling companies that no one will be checking up on them is an invitation to abuse. We need an EPA that does all of its job, all of the time.