The Enforcement Discretion Policy

The coronavirus pandemic took the world by surprise and has managed to change the functions of day to day life for millions of people. While everyone was focused on the virus, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a new policy: companies are no longer required to abide by environmental laws due to this pandemic. Specifically, the EPA stated they will “not expect to seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations that are the result of the COVID-19 pandemic.” This decision to ease environmental regulations can significantly worsen the United States’ coronavirus crisis, increase the disparity between socioeconomic and racial groups, and create a long-lasting adverse effect on the environment.

Air Pollution Can Increase Coronavirus Related Deaths

COVID-19 attacks the human respiratory system, and its effects are worsened as a result of high air pollution. If the EPA does not regulate the emission levels of harmful gases, the entire population is at a higher risk of death due to the virus. A study by researchers at Harvard University has found that “an increase of one microgram per cubic meter of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) will increase the likelihood of death [from COVID-19] by 15%”. This also worsens the risk for those with asthma and other underlying respiratory issues who are already more likely to be severely affected by the coronavirus. Hospitals across the United States are struggling to obtain the medical supplies necessary to treat the hundreds of thousands of affected Americans, and this added stress of air pollution can increase the severity of cases and cause further problems for healthcare services.

The Effect On Environmental Justice Communities

Environmental justice communities are those which are overburdened by and more vulnerable to the effects and potential consequences of climate change than the rest of the country. This is a result of their location in industrial areas that are more exposed to pollution and toxic emissions. These areas are mainly composed of communities of color and lower socioeconomic conditions. The relaxation of pollution restrictions can result in worsening the overall health of these residents, as well as increasing the risk of coronavirus related death. In fact, African Americans are passing away due to the COVID-19 at disproportionate rates. This is a result of many factors, including economic disparity, living conditions, and unconscious racial bias. Additionally, The Century Foundation has discovered that lower-quality healthcare is provided in primarily African American and Latinx neighborhoods, endangering them even further.

Overall Harm To The Natural Environment

Other than the direct consequences on humans, this ‘move’ has the potential to create significant harm to the natural environment. As shown by scientists for many years, the over-emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is resulting in global warming. This policy now allows companies to operate without reporting and monitoring the levels of these gases which have the potential to create an immense climate effect. This new “enforcement discretion policy” has not been given a set end date. The policy could last for numerous months or even years, within which considerable environmental damage can be caused. There is also a chance that this policy could become permanent, as the Trump administration is currently attempting to roll back other environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This act was the first major environmental law in the United States and “requires Federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of proposed major Federal actions prior to making decisions.” Attempts to repeal or ‘adjust’ NEPA show that many actions that do not support environmental welfare could be taken in the future, including making this enforcement discretion policy permanent. This has the potential to create an immense increase in carbon emissions and allow other harmful effects on the environment.

Response From The Public

Countless NGOs, environmentalists, legal experts, and even former EPA officials have been shocked and outraged by this move. The executive director of Sierra Club, a well established environmental organization, states that “this illegal and reckless action will not go unchecked.” Supporting organizations that are working to combat the EPA’s policy, as well as climate change in general, can help reduce the impact of this issue. You can support them by donating and/or virtual volunteering during this time. Additionally, communities are encouraged to report environmental regulation violations to their local government or the EPA, as the EPA “does not provide leniency for intentional criminal violations of law.” Another way to help is by spreading awareness of this issue to your friends, family, and neighbors so that everyone is aware of this difficult situation.