The Environmental Protection Agency notified chemical plants, power companies and other facilities last week that they do not have to meet the legal requirements for reporting air and water pollution, citing the COVID-19 outbreak’s impact on a number of industries.
Organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute requested a relaxation of reporting and monitoring regulations as businesses face layoffs and markets fall.
But with the San Juan Generating Station so close to Durango, relaxations on reporting requirements could cause air pollution issues in Southwest Colorado, while a respiratory disease ravages its rural communities, said Emily Gedeon, chapter director of the Colorado Sierra Club.
And New Mexico’s decision Wednesday to halt operations at the generating station in 2023 was inspired by the state’s efforts to reduce emissions and create cleaner air for nearby communities.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has put a pause on its regulation updating process, which aimed to reduce the environmental impact of oil and natural gas extraction in Colorado, citing the COVID-19 outbreak as a major interruption of the decision-making meetings.
But the organization has continued issuing permits and leases for activities like oil and gas drilling during the pandemic.
Gedeon said the “general culture of the EPA under the Trump administration has been to give oil and gas companies what they wanted.”
Usually, companies that handle functions like oil extraction are required to report their levels of pollution to the EPA. But under current travel restrictions and social-distancing requirements, the reporting compliance easements are meant to accommodate the nation’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, said Lynn Granger, executive director of the American Petroleum Institute of Colorado.
“The pollution-control equipment continues to operate as our industry continues to follow requirements by federal and state programs in order to prioritize safe and reliable operations,” Granger said in a statement.
Threat to public healthJoro Walker, general counsel for the organization Western Resource Advocates, said the irony of the memo from the EPA is that it starts by underscoring the need to protect public health, but it suspends the enforcement of not just monitoring and reporting requirements, but also emission limits.
“Enforcement is the way we protect public health and nearby communities,” Walker said. If companies don’t comply with the law, then the appropriate response is enforcement from government agencies. But if government agencies don’t enforce emission limits and requirements, then public health is threatened at the very time hospitals are overwhelmed with preparation and treatment of COVID-19.
“It is reasonable for the EPA to consider whether to enforce environmental violations on a case-by-case basis, but the memo is alarming in its scope and abdication of enforcement authority,” Walker said.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said the EPA’s memo does not relax environmental standards, it relaxes the amount of paperwork companies need to do to report on their pollution levels.
“There are things that are going to be beyond the control of the company,” Sgamma said, such as a worker falling ill.
“And a company that takes advantage of this memo might face penalties in the future,” Sgamma said.
The EPA under a future administration could request documentation of pollution levels during the COVID-19 outbreak, and if the company can’t prove that the reason it didn’t document pollution levels was caused by the pandemic, then it could face repercussions.
But if monitoring and reporting requirements are not enforced, the public and government leaders may never understand the full extent of any illegal emissions released during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Enforcement up to Colorado leadersHannah Collazo, state director of Environment Colorado, said the EPA’s rollbacks on reporting could have a drastic impact on the data the organization collects to back regulations it recommends to protect public health in the state.
While there is not yet scientific research that shows air pollution exacerbates the effects of COVID-19, it has been shown to increase the risk of other respiratory illnesses, such as asthma and pneumonia.
In Colorado in particular, facilities that emit pollutants are close to hospitals, child care centers and nursing homes.
If companies don’t have to report on their emissions, “we know they are not going to take ownership of what they are releasing into Colorado’s air,” Collazo said. The reporting requirements are meant to keep polluters accountable.
However, Colorado as a state is still free to enforce federal regulations. Now, it is incumbent on the state to continue these efforts instead of working in partnership with the EPA, Walker said.
Community members of Southwest Colorado should be aware this change is happening and encourage their state to continue to monitor pollution levels, Walker said. No one wants to realize that suddenly, in the middle of a pandemic, a nearby facility that emits pollutants into the air “isn’t going to be doing the whole scope of actions it needs to take to protect public health.”
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.