The EPA cut back enforcement during COVID. Researchers are now assessing the damage.

As the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon the U.S. in mid-March, the head of the nation’s most powerful oil and gas industry group wrote to President Trump. The American Petroleum Institute CEO, Michael Sommers, asked for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to exempt his industry from so-called routine reporting and monitoring requirements, a set of rules that form the backbone of federal environmental law.

Six days later, Sommers’ wish came true: The EPA announced a temporary enforcement policy stating that facilities — like coal plants, refineries, and wastewater processing plants — that weren’t able to monitor and report emissions of toxic pollutants during the pandemic would be excused. The agency “[did] not expect to” pursue fines when these facilities failed to fulfill their obligation to report the quantities of various cancer-causing chemicals they were releasing into the air and water.

In the following weeks, environmental groups and a coalition of nine states filed three separate lawsuits, arguing that the policy was too broad and essentially allowed polluters to decide whether or not they wanted to comply with environmental laws.

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Ultimately, despite the threat of COVID-19 showing few signs of slowing, the EPA phased out its policy at the end of August. But for 172 days, in the middle of a global pandemic, the nation’s top environmental cop looked to many like it was essentially off the beat.

“EPA’s COVID-19 enforcement policy was just ill-conceived from the beginning,” said Joel Mintz, a professor of law emeritus at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and former EPA enforcement attorney. “Whether intentionally or not, it sent a signal to regulated companies and to states that EPA was basically suspending enforcement during the pandemic. That was how it was perceived.”

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