California’s top environmental agency said it would “fill any enforcement gaps” left by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision last month to relax oversight in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) said in a statement Wednesday it would also continue to respond to, investigate, and act on violation complaints during the crisis.
The state agency didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment or details on how the state would fill in for federal oversight responsibilities.
U.S. EPA released guidance on March 26 saying it would prioritize resources to respond to acute risks and imminent threats rather than making individual decisions regarding routine monitoring and reporting. The agency also said it would not excuse “exceedances of pollutant limitations in permits, regulations, and statutes,” but that it wouldn’t seek penalties in certain cases.
Days later two dozen environmental and advocacy groups petitioned EPA to require public notice of any relaxed air and water quality monitoring and reporting due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. EPA called the state claims misleading and inaccurate.
“EPA’s enforcement authority and responsibility remains active,” an EPA spokesoman said in an email. “The temporary enforcement guidance is not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules and does not allow for any increase in emissions.”
Forgiving penalties would be allowed on a case-by-case basis if EPA determined the coronavirus pandemic was the cause. “This means a facility can take steps to protect workers, even if some routine sampling or reports won’t be completed,” she wrote.
State officials said they realized some regulated agencies could need help meeting permits or compliance goals and requests for hardship waivers would be expedited.
Controlling air pollution will continues to be a focus of the state as cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, spread.
“Controlling pollution in communities with high rates of respiratory disease and multiple environmental burdens remains a priority for CalEPA — especially given recent studies that suggest a correlation between these factors and Covid-19 susceptibility,” the agency said in a statement.
A Harvard University study published earlier this month said that the majority of conditions that increase death risk from Covid-19 are the same diseases that affect people living in areas with chronic air pollution.
The study found that an increase of one microgram per cubic meter of fine particulate matter is associated with a 15% increase in the Covid-19 death rate.