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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suspended its enforcement of a variety of environmental laws on Thursday, saying that industries could have trouble complying with them due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The agency added that it won't expect "to seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations."
"EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements," said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. "This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment."
The temporary enforcement discretion policy is open-ended and applies to civil violations, although leniency for intentional criminal violations of law will not be provided, the agency said.
Fines or other civil penalties will be waived for companies that failed to meet certain requirements for releasing hazardous pollutants.
Certain industries, including the oil and gas industry, had previously requested relief during the pandemic -- citing potential staffing problems. Oil prices have also greatly shrunk because of the outbreak, lack of demand, and overseas factors -- with crude oil prices nearing 18-year lows.
Cynthia Giles, the head of EPA’s Office of Enforcement during the Obama administration said the new policy was "essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future."
"It tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way 'caused' by the virus pandemic," she told The Hill. "And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was."
Giles said that while there were circumstances where a disaster like the pandemic might make compliance impossible, those instances called for narrow decisions by regulators on clemency.
The EPA directive said industries would be expected to comply with regulations “where reasonably practicable.”
Businesses that broke regulations would have to be able to show that they tried to reduce the harm, and show how any violations were caused by the coronavirus outbreak, the EPA said.
Giles said she couldn't remember a time in the EPA’s half-century history where it “relinquished its fundamental authority."
She added that Thursday's policy did just that.
The EPA said it will assess "this temporary policy" on a regular basis and will update it when the agency determines modifications are necessary.
The Associated Press contributed to this report