Late last month, in an interesting development, the USA Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has decided to temporarily ease the enforcement of environmental regulations amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. EPA is an independent agency of the United States federal government for environmental protection. Established in 1970, the agency has the responsibility of maintaining and enforcing laws related to the environment, in consultation with state, tribal, and local governments.
What does it mean? US-based companies will not face any penalties & fine even if they violate environmental laws, emit polluted air and indulge in water pollution so long as they claim that those failures are caused by the virus outbreak. EPA has effectively given up its authority and has put the onus on the companies to be responsible for monitoring their own air and water pollution during this time.
Example: Oil refineries, like BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and power plants will not be obliged to report on the pollution emissions (in short, the pollutants that can cause cancer and lung damage are free to air).
What happens generally? Under normal circumstances, factories and companies are required to report when they release certain levels of pollution into the air or water.
The logic of this temporary relief: Many businesses in the US have asked for flexibility because they are short-staffed and meeting regulatory requirements related to the environment would have put more stress on the resources.
“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,” EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler wrote in an announcement.
Critics of this decision: Environmentalists argue the relaxed laws will result in more pollution and would play havoc on efforts to reduce climate change. Moreover, air pollution not only leads to a warmer climate, but it can also cause other health problems — potentially putting the families and residents living near these facilities at an increased risk.
Enough! What is our take? Making an exception to rules in these unprecedented times is definitely required, but nonadherence to environmental rules is not an option. When the world is severely impacted by a pandemic which has caused serious damage to immune systems, respiratory organs, and mental health, easing off the rules might substantially deteriorate air & water quality, which will immensely affect the body’s ability to withstand.
Instead, we require innovative ideas and contextual solutions, which would take a balanced approach to economic growth and environmental protection. When the workforce is in short supply, dependency on manual monitoring could have been replaced with technology interventions like IoT, drones, AI or data-enabled systems.
While this may have started in the USA, there is a great chance that other counties & government might replicate this rule and give leeway to their companies in the facade of protecting the economy. We only hope that those in command and each company behave responsibly and do not damage the ailing planet.