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A pandemic is no excuse for rolling back environmental protections

Polluters and their allies are quietly working overtime to make it easier to foul the environment as COVID-19 rages. It would be the ultimate irony if we were to beat back COVID-19 only to open the door to more pollution.

Two weeks ago, in a move the Trump administration claims is necessary to save the auto industry, the White House rolled back clean-air standards for cars. It’s one of many environmental rollbacks the administration has pushed amid the coronavirus.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Special interests are setting the stage for another public health crisis once COVID-19 has passed. Let’s stop them while we can.

As the nation focuses on the coronavirus pandemic, polluters and their allies are quietly working overtime to ease the rules against fouling the environment. They want to allow cars to spew more contaminants. They want to give a new pass to factories that pollute our water and air.

Widespread and enduring health problems would be sure to follow. People would get sick and die, though nobody would call it a pandemic. It would just be a return to a day that our nation fought hard, standing up to corporate despoilers of the environment, to move beyond.

Many industries genuinely deserve help to get through the pandemic. But others have been exploiting it to take advantage of the Trump administration’s consistent willingness to weaken environmental protections. The administration itself is trying to take advantage as well.

“We have a pandemic that is a respiratory virus, and we are going to risk having more pollution get into the air that people are breathing,” said John Rumpler, clean water program director of Environment America. “That seems insane.”

The recent pace of efforts to weaken environmental protections has been relentless.

  • Two weeks ago, in a move the Trump administration has favored all along but now claims is necessary to save the auto industry from the pandemic, the White House rolled back clean-air standards for automobiles. The new rule reduces the requirement that fuel efficiency standards be improved by about two-thirds by 2025. If the new rule is upheld in court, we can expect dirtier air and an uptick in associated health problems, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The change would hasten climate change and all its attendant threats to public health.
  • Also this spring, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it is essentially allowing polluters to stop reporting whether they have fouled the environment — as long as they claim they broke the rules because of the coronavirus. Disturbingly, the EPA has set no time or geographical limits on its order. Here again, the Trump Administration is just hitching a ride on the pandemic. It has always favored less monitoring of polluters, cutting EPA staff and sharply reduced investigations in the last three years. Conceivably, a chemical spill could take place in Lake Michigan and no one would be the wiser. The new policy was imposed after the American Petroleum Institute sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler requesting a loosening of the rules.
  • Using COVID-19 as a smokescreen, the plastics industry reportedly has intensified its lobbying to get rid of limits on single-use plastics, which are a source of widespread and long-lasting plastic pollution.

Other Trump administration efforts to vivisect environmental protections also are underway, although in these cases there has been no obvious effort to use the pandemic as an excuse:

  • Recently, a final rule was published that limits states from using the Clean Water Act to block environmentally unfriendly building projects.
  • The Trump administration is trying to gut the National Environmental Policy Act. This would make it harder for the public to raise concerns or offer alternatives to big federal projects such as highways, bridges and pipelines. And federal agencies no longer would be required to analyze the cumulative environmental impact of a project before approving it.
  • Last month, the EPA pushed forward with a plan to relegate a good portion of science to the sidelines when creating rules to protect public health. Specifically, the EPA put out an updated plan to exclude research where all the underlying data was not publicly available, even data that was not shared because it would have violated medical privacy laws.

A generation ago, corporations routinely fouled our nation’s air, water and soil with lead, mercury, PCBs, asbestos and chlorofluorocarbons.

We breathed it in, drank it and ate it.

It would be the ultimate irony of this pandemic if we were to beat back COVID-19 only to open the door to dramatically more corporate pollution.

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