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State Reassures Enviro. Group After EPA Says It'll Ease Pollution Rules During Pandemic

Annie Ropeik

The state is trying to reassure environmental advocates in the wake of a controversial federal decision to ease pollution enforcement during the pandemic.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued guidance last week, saying industrial facilities could be off the hook for violating environmental rules and regulations – as long as they can prove the lapse is related to COVID-19.

This could affect routine monitoring, pollution limits, reporting requirements and other rules.

The EPA memo does not give a timeline for when the waiver will be reversed. The agency says it aims to protect workers from being exposed to coronavirus in the name of regulatory compliance.

The EPA has pushed back sharply on concerns raised about the waiver, writing in a letter to Congress this week that the agency will continue to enforce the nation’s environmental laws.

“EPA expects regulated facilities to comply with regulatory requirements, where reasonably practicable, and to return to compliance as quickly as possible, once the COVID-19 threat subsides,” assistant administrator Susan Parker Bodine wrote in the letter.

But Cathy Corkery with the New Hampshire Sierra Club said the guidance is too broad and open-ended. She fears it will increase pollution, threatening disadvantaged communities and people with pre-existing health conditions and exacerbating the coronavirus threat.

“In a time where we are very concerned about public health, this escalates risks,” Corkery said. “There are no boundaries to this decision, and that is very dangerous.”

Click here to read all of our continuing coverage of coronavirus in New Hampshire.

Corkery asked the state to push back on the change, to clarify its impacts, and to call for an investigation into how it was influenced by lobbyists – particularly from the fossil fuel industry.

“The decision allows polluters to determine for themselves their ability to follow the requirements for air and water pollution without monitoring from regulators or self-reporting,” Corkery wrote to the Department of Environmental Services and the governor’s office earlier this week.

"[EPA] have assured us that their COVID enforcement discretion policy only applies to demonstrable COVID impacts." --DES Commissioner Robert Scott

In his response, state environmental commissioner Robert Scott said he believes EPA will use the waiver appropriately:

“[T]hey have assured us that their COVID enforcement discretion policy only applies to demonstrable COVID impacts,” Scott wrote to Corkery, in an email the state Department of Environmental Services provided to NHPR.

Scott said the EPA waiver is meant to give the agency flexibility, "but is not a guarantee that they won't take enforcement action.”

Scott did not respond to Corkery’s request for an inventory of New Hampshire facilities that will be affected by the change, or to the request for an investigation.

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In general, DES says the waiver could apply to power plants, wastewater treatment facilities and others that use federal pollution permits. New Hampshire is one of only a few states where the EPA manages some key types of these permits directly.

DES also says it’s temporarily suspending some of its own inspection programs and addressing industries’ coronavirus-related concerns on a case-by-case basis, similar to EPA.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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