The Environmental Protection Agency announced on Thursday that it will stop enforcing some portions of a broad range of environmental laws for the time being as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. That's been met with outrage from environmental groups. All Things Considered host Arun Rath spoke with WGBH News reporter Craig LeMoult about the announcement. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: Tell us what this new directive says exactly.
Craig LeMoult: Well, the EPA announced it won't be issuing any fines or other civil penalties for companies that fail to monitor or report that they released hazardous pollutants. They say that's only if those companies can show that the coronavirus somehow played a role in what happened.
Rath: Give us a bit more detail on the reaction from these environmental groups.
LeMoult: I'd say they're horrified by this. The Trump administration has consistently worked to roll back all kinds of environmental regulations, and I think they see this as a continuation of that. I talked with Brad Campbell of the Conservation Law Foundation, and he called this a cynical exploitation of the pandemic. He said there was no need to make such a broad policy - that the EPA does have flexibility on enforcement to handle things on a case by case basis if there were specific problems related to the coronavirus. He said most companies do follow environmental laws. But he said this is just an invitation to bad actors to just go ahead and pollute.
Brad Campbell: Polluters are going to be able to get out of compliance, cut corners, save money. And as long as they create the record, EPA is not going to enforce. And that's going to lead to more pollution in our lungs, in our waters, and affecting the health of our communities.
Rath: What kind of pollution are environmentalist most worried about here?
LeMoult: I talked with Ben Hellerstein about that. He's with the group Environment Massachusetts. And he said he's especially concerned about pollution from the oil and gas industry. He said things like refineries and fracking operations are polluters often. Also, the transportation of oil and gas can be problematic. He also raised a really interesting issue about how this could affect Massachusetts specifically. Here's what he said.
Ben Hellerstein: Massachusetts is one of the few states that the state environmental agency has not taken over primary enforcement of the Clean Water Act. That authority still rests with the federal government. And so I think it's a real question of, you know, some of the permits and settlements that have been agreed to with various polluters. Could those provisions be suspended? Could we see additional pollution in our local waterways?
Rath: Have you heard what this means for people working for the EPA?
LeMoult: Well, I'm told they really haven't been able to do much of their jobs since this whole pandemic began. But I talked with Kyla Bennett today. She's the science director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is known as PEER, that's sort of a whistle-blower organization that supports and defends local and state and federal employees in public environmental agencies. Here's what she said about this.
Kyla Bennett: EPA employees are horrified by this directive. They feel like they have had their legs cut out from under them and that they are unable to protect the environment or human health given this directive.
LeMoult: She says they really see this as a retreat from their mission as environmental workers.
Rath: Well, Craig, is the EPA offering a public explanation for this decision?
LeMoult: Yeah. I reached out to them today. They said they couldn't make anybody available to talk to me on tape. But in a written statement, a spokesperson said that this is not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules. They still have authority and will consider issues on a case by case basis. He says right now it's more important that facilities focus on making sure their pollution control equipment is up and running safely than it is for them to be doing some sort of routine sampling and reporting. He says the agency still can take action against companies that exceed limits. And he stressed this is a temporary policy, although at this point there's no announced end date for it.
Rath: Important story. Craig, thanks so much for updating us on this.
LeMoult: You're welcome.