States sue Trump’s EPA over rule relaxation during pandemic

Erik Larson

Nine states sued the Trump administration for allegedly abdicating its responsibility to enforce U.S. environmental laws during the pandemic, challenging a recent plan to relax enforcement due to worker shortages and travel restrictions stemming from the outbreak.

The suit, led by New York Attorney General Letitia James, was filed Wednesday in federal court in Manhattan about six weeks after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it would temporarily relax civil enforcement of various regulations during the public health crisis.

In this June 11, 2019, file photo, New York Attorney General Letitia James speaks during a news conference in New York. James is leading a suit with nine states suing the Trump administration for allegedly abdicating its responsibility to enforce U.S. environmental laws during the pandemic.

“The Trump Administration cannot give industries the green light to ignore critical environmental and public health laws, especially during a public health crisis,” James, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Oil companies, chemical manufacturers and refiners have argued they need flexibility while struggling to get contractors and suppliers to sites, especially in areas under shelter-in-place orders. Although oil refineries and some other facilities are exempt from lockdown requirements, those waivers are not consistently being applied to third-party suppliers and contractors.

The EPA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

In their challenge to the EPA’s March 26 policy, the states said the agency lacks legal authority to “effectively waive critical monitoring and reporting obligations” that alert the public to hazards.

“Rather than exercising enforcement discretion as authorized by law, EPA issued a broad, open-ended policy that gives regulated parties free rein to self-determine when compliance with federal environmental laws is not practical because of Covid-19,” according to the complaint.

The EPA memo said the agency wouldn’t go after companies that fail to satisfy many “routine monitoring and reporting obligations” because of the coronavirus, as long as they documented why they couldn’t fulfill the mandates, worked to resolve the issues, and sought to minimize the effects.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told reporters on a conference call at the time the memo was issued that the agency would “expect facilities to comply with their obligations under the law” except when Covid-19 made that “impracticable.”

The other states that sued are California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Virginia and Vermont.