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Covid-19 rollback in EPA air, water rules will cause deaths, critics say

Covid-19 rollback in EPA air, water rules will cause deaths, critics say

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By all accounts, there are more than 350 Western New York companies and facilities regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

And now, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, those companies are experiencing a dramatic rollback in EPA enforcement, a move likely to result in them polluting more than normal and with little or no consequence, according to clean air advocates and state officials.

Even more important, critics claim, the EPA's decision will result in more people here dying.

"During a pandemic, the last thing we should do is jeopardize more people's health," said Rebecca Newberry, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. "What this does is open the floodgates to how many people will die."

The EPA's decision to relax environmental rules is temporary and followed a barrage of requests for relief from companies dealing with economic hardship because of the pandemic.

The agency's action means factories, chemical plants, public water supplies and others will decide for themselves if they are violating federal clean air and water standards.

The EPA also made it clear it does not intend to fine violators during this temporary period.

"This wholesale rollback of enforcing regulations in place to protect the quality of our air, water and health of our communities is a shameful exploitation of the current public health crisis," state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a prepared statement.

Like Newberry, Seggos pointed to the standard for a lot of environmental rules – how many people will die prematurely – and predicted the EPA's decision will result in more lost lives.

"Specifically, today’s EPA rollback will result in more air pollution in New York’s communities, more respiratory illnesses and more New Yorkers dying because of air pollution," he said.

Eager to stop the changes, which are already in effect, the Clean Air Coalition is calling on New York Attorney General Letitia James to intervene on the public's behalf and sue the Trump administration.

James declined to comment Wednesday but, as attorney general, has repeatedly taken on the administration, often in partnership with other states.

Announced late last week, the EPA's decision prompted an immediate rebuke from former agency officials and environmentalists, many of whom characterized it as a waiver of the nation's environmental rules.

Others defended the agency and said the decision provides direction and support for businesses facing uncertain times.

The agency claims the relaxation of rules will allow facilities to focus on ensuring that their pollution control equipment is working instead of on routine sampling and reporting. It also is quick to note that the changes are temporary and will be terminated when the crisis passes.

“It is not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules,” an EPA spokeswoman said in a statement. “For situations outside of routine monitoring and reporting, the agency has reserved its authorities and will take the pandemic into account on a case-by-case basis.”

The agency, in its announcement last week, cited worker shortages and social distancing requirements in justifying the enforcement changes.

It also encouraged companies and facilities to comply with their environmental obligations, but left the door open to instances when "compliance is not reasonably practicable."

Companies who fail to comply are being asked to "minimize the effects and duration of the noncompliance" and document how Covid-19 restrictions hampered their pollution control efforts.

In announcing the temporary relaxation of rules, the EPA also said it would not seek fines or other penalties against companies that can show Covid-19 caused their violations.

In the past, companies with EPA permits allowing them to pollute self-reported to the agency and were fined or required to make changes if they exceeded their legal limit on pollutants. Now, they can exceed those limits without consequence as long as they can show their violations are rooted in the pandemic.

While broad in scope, the rule changes do not apply to companies facing criminal, not civil, violations or those involved in Superfund or Resource Conservation and Recovery Act projects.

Newberry said the EPA's announcement is more than just a reversal in rules and regulations. It also represents a dramatic change in the agency's historical and instrumental role as a prod in getting New York and other states to initiate inspections and cite violators.

She also worries about the people, many of them members of her organization, who live around these companies and facilities and will bear the brunt of the impact if those permit holders violate their pollution limits.

Many of those people, she said, are older and already sick.

"I have faces to these people," Newberry said. "They're my family."

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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