Our communities deserve government agencies that are willing to protect us from public-health threats. Today’s COVID-19 pandemic makes this truth more salient and more urgent than ever. Instead of meeting this responsibility, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington state Department of Ecology — public agencies tasked with adopting and enforcing environmental protections — have decided to do the opposite.
On March 26, the EPA issued a memorandum titled “COVID‐19 Implications for EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program,” as did the state Ecology Department, issuing the memo, “Regulatory Flexibility,” which was subsequently renamed “Compliance Assistance.” Issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, these policies contain unprecedented abdication of responsibility to enforce vital environmental protections.
While both policies create confusion around bedrock legal requirements, and invite industry and other regulated entities to deprioritize oversight and control of the pollution they generate, Ecology’s stance is potentially worse than the EPA’s.
Unlike the EPA’s policy, which focuses on looseness around monitoring and reporting requirements for pollution dischargers, Ecology’s policy isn’t limited to those two areas. Ecology’s policy includes “all state requirements” under the agency’s purview and promises an exercise of “discretion” in enforcing violations across the board. This is both alarming and dangerous and may magnify local-level impacts. Because of these policies, pollution won’t be stopped before it happens. Instead, we’ll find out when it’s too late — after the damage has been done.
The situations created by these agency policies are akin to a police force announcing that although speed limits are still in effect, no patrol officers will be on duty to issue tickets. If no one monitors traffic laws designed to protect the public from car accidents, injuries and fatalities will certainly rise. The same is true where agencies fail to enforce protections that safeguard public health and community safety. The Department of Ecology notes that many state laws afford reasonable discretion. However, when that discretion is embedded in policy, as Ecology has done here, it negates the deterrent effect — i.e. polluters know up front that they might get a break.
The protections that these agencies are expressing flexibility on are not inconsequential. They represent 40-plus years of hard-fought, science-backed safeguards that protect the health of people who live, work, worship and play among those resources, including the water we drink and the air we breathe. These legal requirements reduce and control pollution going into our environment because experts agree that pollution is harmful to human health.
In addition to hurting orcas and salmon, pollution in our environment causes severe health disparities, especially in communities near the facilities currently getting a pass from the EPA and the Department of Ecology. Chronic health conditions such as asthma, heart and lung diseases — the same health factors that make a person more susceptible to COVID-19 — could increase because of this pause in enforcement. This is especially true for residents of industrial corridors — like Seattle’s Duwamish Valley — with documented respiratory health disparities and strained access to medical care.
As one of the handful of organizations in the region that enforces the Clean Water Act — a set of laws to ensure our waters are swimmable, fishable and drinkable — Puget Soundkeeper is deeply concerned about how the EPA’s and Ecology’s enforcement hiatus could exacerbate the COVID-19 crisis in our communities. We are tremendously concerned, and empathize with the individuals and businesses impacted by this pandemic. We also firmly believe that now is not the time to abandon critical environmental protections, especially when it can result in further harm to the health and safety of those most vulnerable.
We promise our Puget Soundkeeper members and supporters that we will continue doing what we can to protect clean water. We call upon the EPA and Ecology to do the same.