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Attorney General Donovan Calls for EPA to Scrap Policy Limiting Federal Environmental Enforcement

April 15, 2020

COVID-19 Policy Could Harm Low-Income and Minority Communities

Contact: Robert F. McDougall, Chief, Environmental Protection Division, 802-828-3171

Attorney General T.J. Donovan and 13 other state attorneys general submitted a letter today to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) denouncing the EPA’s March 26 announcement that it would roll back environmental enforcement. The announcement came in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The memorandum outlines a nationwide policy on the civil enforcement of federal environmental laws to respond to the crisis. The coalition also issued the following statement:

“As the chief law enforcement officers of our states, we are greatly concerned by the EPA’s announcement of a nationwide policy significantly curtailing enforcement of our nation’s bedrock environmental and public health laws. Although it is appropriate for EPA to consider whether safeguards against the coronavirus impact the ability of industry to comply, the agency cannot—in the midst of a public health crisis—lose sight of its mission to protect public health and the environment. Because the policy turns a blind eye to the impacts on our communities of more pollution and lesser accountability, we strongly urge EPA to rescind it.  We will continue to enforce our state environmental laws in a reasonable manner and stand ready to hold regulated entities accountable under critical federal environmental laws if EPA will not.”

On March 26, the EPA issued a policy entitled “COVID-19 Implications for EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program.” The policy, which applies retroactively to March 13, has no end date. The EPA states in the policy that it does not intend to take enforcement action against companies that, for example, violate existing reporting and monitoring requirements, provided that the companies draw a nexus between COVID-19 and their noncompliance. Absent any requirement to provide the EPA, states, tribes, or the public with notice of such noncompliance, fence line communities—often low income and minority communities—could be exposed to harmful pollution without adequate warning.

This is made more troubling by the EPA’s statement in the policy that it may forego enforcement even in situations where a polluter’s noncompliance presents an imminent threat to public health or the environment. The policy also ignores the connection between air pollution and cardiovascular and respiratory conditions (e.g., asthma), which may increase risk of serious harms—including premature death—for individuals who contract the COVID-19 virus. Attorney General Donovan’s letter argues that the EPA can and should be able to provide guidance to companies without putting the health of our communities at even greater risk than they are already facing.

In addition to Attorney General Donovan, today’s letter was signed by the attorneys general of Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.