Planet Earth was given a brief period of relief from overconsumption and rampant carbon emissions during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. But it may amount to nothing more than a passing breath of fresh air stopped short by a stifling cough, as thousands of oil and gas companies have been granted permission to forgo important environmental protections until the pandemic comes to an end.
Among the facilities that have so far been granted permission to stop monitoring hazardous emissions, according to the Associated Press: “some Texas refineries and at an army depot dismantling warheads armed with nerve gas in Kentucky, manure piling up and the mass disposal of livestock carcasses at farms in Iowa and Minnesota, and other risks to communities as governments eased enforcement over smokestacks, medical waste shipments, sewage plants, oilfields and chemical plants.”
The Trump Administration initiated granting these permissions to reduce environmental monitoring responsibilities in late March. Lobbyists from the oil and gas industry have convinced the republican president that social distancing rules make it impossible to perform such monitoring effectively. Meanwhile, state governments have also relaxed oversight of longstanding environmental rules.
According to a memo from Susan Parker Bodine, Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance at the EPA, regulated entities who have been granted the waivers have leniency when it comes to “compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification,” and are urged, but not required, to track those issues internally.
“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 of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the EPA upon request,” Bodine writes. “After this policy is no longer in effect, the EPA expects full compliance going forward. In general, absent exigent circumstances, the EPA does not plan to ask facilities to “catch-up” with missed monitoring or reporting if the underlying requirement applies to intervals of less than three months. For other monitoring or reports, such as those required on a bi-annual or annual basis, when this policy is no longer in effect, the EPA expects facilities to take reasonable measures to resume compliance activities as soon as possible, including conducting late monitoring or submitting late reports.”
The AP investigation found more than 3,000 instances in which facilities were granted waivers for environmental rules, a large majority of the total requests submitted. Most of them referenced the safety and health of workers and the public as justification for the request, but several were submitted solely on the basis of reducing expenses.
The EPA contends that egregious polluters will still be held to the law, but it may be hard to define the line between health and safety precautions and a genuine lack of oversight.
“The harm from this policy is already done,” said Cynthia Giles, EPA’s former assistant administrator under the Obama administration.
Marathon Petroleum, a large refinery in Ohio that was facing hardships before the pandemic began as oil prices bottomed out, was one of the companies that applied for the environmental monitoring waivers. According to the AP report, Marathon asked the EPA for leniency in “leak detection, groundwater sampling, spill prevention, emissions testing and hazardous waste responsibilities at its facilities statewide,” the very same day the EPA rolled out the option. Marathon also requested to forgo monitoring responsibilities at its refineries in California, Michigan, North Dakota and Texas.
Many of the requests for leniency have involved replacing in-person meetings and inspections with records submitted by email or drive-by assessments. In North Carolina, Chemours Co. was allowed to put PFAS testing on hold because it involved entering the homes of elderly residents in the state. In New Mexico, in-person investigations of citizen-reported air-quality complaints were put on hold for three months during the spring.
“Penny Aucoin, a resident of New Mexico’s oil-rich Permian Basin, said since the pandemic, she and her husband have spent days begging regulators to investigate surges of noxious gas or hisses that they feared could signal a dangerous leak from one of the many oil and gas companies operating near their mobile home,” AP reports.
“There’s nobody watching,” Aucoin said. “A lot of stuff is going wrong. And there’s nobody to fix it.”
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.