Even as the White House bungles its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration is endangering public health in other ways — by eliminating or undermining protection of our air and water.
It’s bad enough that this is happening during a pandemic outbreak of a respiratory illness, given that air pollution worsens lung disease in general and appears to be having the same effect with COVID-19. But the effects of various rollbacks in pollution standards could linger long after this crisis subsides.
During his time in office, Trump has ransacked the environment so vigorously that advisory boards appointed by his own administration have criticized the administration’s disregard for scientific evidence in its approach to regulating pollution. Last month, the White House finalized a plan to cut vehicle gas-mileage requirements to a degree that was even more extreme than the deregulation sought by several automakers. And yet Trump and Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who heads the Environmental Protection Agency, keep finding new ways to give industry a pass when it comes to contaminating the environment.
On March 26, the EPA announced that it will refrain from requiring companies, including oil refineries, chemical plants, and other industrial facilities, to monitor and report their discharges of hazardous material if those companies can show that the coronavirus got in the way of such work. As a result, companies that were already enjoying a reduction in the enforcement of pollution rules under Trump now have a new excuse for avoiding responsible stewardship of the air and water. The public is left to hope and pray that companies don’t exploit this moment and instead continue to uphold their obligations to avoid poisoning communities.
Companies that release hazardous pollutants may be keeping many employees home to slow the spread of the virus. But if the facilities are still staffed enough to operate as normal with employees on production lines — as many power plants and petrochemical facilities are — they should be able to keep looking for leaks, testing emissions, and reporting discharges, says Eric Schaeffer, who formerly directed civil enforcement at the EPA and now heads the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group.
Schaeffer argues that the EPA didn’t have to deviate so far from the process it usually follows when natural disasters or pipeline breaks force companies out of compliance with environmental rules: The agency writes specific short-term waivers. But this EPA didn’t put a time limit on its COVID-19 policy. Companies are instead urged to “return to compliance as quickly as possible.”
Perhaps it seems there’s some margin for environmental error now, with overall air pollution way down as stay-at-home advisories keep people out of their cars. But that’s not true for the employees and neighbors of big industrial facilities. “If you’re living next to a smelter, or a metal-finishing operation, or a refinery, it’s business as usual for them. They could be putting out stuff that’s pretty nasty,” Schaeffer says. And those toxins are very likely to go undetected if the companies stop monitoring what they’re putting into the air and water. “The problem with most pollutants is that they don’t have color, they don’t have taste, they don’t have sound,” he says.
To put it another way: If industrial facilities can’t say whether they’re operating safely, maybe they shouldn’t be allowed to operate at all.
Overturning some of Trump’s most damaging environmental policies, especially ones related to global warming, will require voters to throw him out of office. But it’s still worth trying to persuade the administration to rethink the pollution-monitoring holiday and other unhealthy policies it’s formulating. Six senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, have asked the EPA to halt “several proposals that would likely have a negative impact on air quality and public health.” These proposals cover, among other things, the allowable amounts of mercury, methane, and coal ash in the environment.
Such requests could make a difference, even now.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, the EPA was in a hurry to sharply reduce the influence of public-health studies on environmental regulations. Wheeler has been claiming, disingenuously, that epidemiological research is insufficiently transparent unless its raw data, including individual medical records, are publicly released. Wheeler and his Republican allies know full well that releasing such data could be unethical or illegal, and their real goal is to discredit the studies.
In March, the EPA opened up a relatively brief 30-day window for public comment on this insidious proposal; nearly 24,000 comments have come in. But in light of the disruption caused by COVID-19, critics asked for more time to respond and the EPA extended the comment period to May. Anyone concerned about the intimate connection between the environment and our health should be sure to weigh in.
In the meantime, Congress should keep the heat on the EPA to continue enforcing the nation’s pollution rules amid the pandemic. Public health depends on it.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.