Trump administration eases environmental enforcement during outbreak

(Reuters) - The Trump administration has decided to ease enforcement of environmental regulations covering polluting industries to help them cope with impacts from the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: The Environmental Protection Agency headquarters is seen in Washington, D.C., U.S., January 19, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The decision follows requests by the oil lobby and other industry groups for regulatory relief as governments around the world scramble to contain fallout from the pandemic, which has infected nearly a half a million people, decimated travel, and forced massive disruptions in daily life.

“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a press release.

The EPA said in a memo outlining the changes that it does not plan to fine polluting industries for violating certain monitoring and reporting requirements during the outbreak. It added that the EPA will now “focus its resources largely on situations that may create an acute risk or imminent threat to public health or the environment.”

“In general, the EPA does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause,” it said.

The EPA will also work with the Department of Justice to “exercise enforcement discretion” related to penalties previously assessed on polluting companies, according to the memo, signed by Susan Bodine, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance.

The memo said the changes were retroactive to March 13.

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Last week, the American Petroleum Institute asked U.S. President Donald Trump for temporary relief from regulatory requirements on the oil and gas industry to ensure steady fuel supplies during the coronavirus outbreak, according to a letter it sent to Trump seen by Reuters.

The group said it was mainly concerned that coronavirus would leave it with limited numbers of healthy staff to run critical operations - making it harder to comply with federal environmental and safety requirements.

The oil industry also wants the EPA to provide it with waivers allowing sale of winter-grade gasoline deep into spring and summer to deal with a supply glut, as the coronavirus outbreak cuts deeply into demand for motorfuels.

The EPA requires different seasonal blends of gasoline as a way to limit tailpipe smog.

The EPA memo on Thursday did not address fuel waivers.

More than a dozen environmental groups on Thursday criticized the agency for putting the public at risk as it eased its enforcement of air and water protections.

“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,” said a letter from groups including the Environmental Integrity Project and Wild Earth Guardians.

Reporting by Laura Sanicola and Valerie Volcovici; editing by David Gregorio and Tom Brown