WASHINGTON (CN) — Defending the country’s abandonment of air pollution controls even as the globe is in the grip of a deadly respiratory virus, Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler pulled down a facemask emblazoned with a butterfly to testify Wednesday before members of the Senate.
“EPA is rising to the challenge before us,” Wheeler said, seated well over six feet from a small group of Republican senators on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Most Democratic members of the committee opted to participate in the hearing remotely.
In the last two months of pandemic response, EPA has proposed or finalized no less than eight rules that Democrats and environmentalist groups say increase pollution and exacerbate the risk posed to vulnerable populations generally speaking but especially so during the outbreak.
Among other things the government has reversed standards for greenhouse gas emissions and fuel efficiency under the SAFE Vehicles Rule. It has also revised regulations for the disposal of refrigerator appliances under the Clean Air Act, and lifted protections for millions of miles of U.S. streams and wetlands.
In the latest move just last week, the EPA opted to let retailers sell wood heating systems through November, even though those systems fail to meet clean air standards.
This was done, Wheeler explained, to shore up companies struggling to sell their wares as the weather warms up and the pandemic drives the economy down.
“Under their contracts, they would have to buy back wood heaters still on their shelves, and that could have bankrupted a number of small manufacturers,” the former coal lobbyist for Murray Energy Corporation said.
Wheeler lauded the agency’s actions as “important work” modernizing decades-old regulations, while the Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, who chairs the committee, claimed that small businesses have seen a savings of $5 billion in regulatory costs over the last three years.
From the other side of the aisle, Delaware Senator Tom Carper noted that the proposed EPA budget for 2021 is cut by more than 25%, a $2.5 billion decrease from last year’s appropriations.
“Funding at that level would severely hamper programs that protect water quality and drinking water,” Carper said before pondering how people would be able to stay healthy during a pandemic if the water they need to wash their hands is increasingly unsanitary.
Before the hearing, Carper issued a staff report emphasizing studies that suggest the death toll from Covid-19 increases among those previously exposed to air pollution.
Senator Ed Markey seized on this report when he upbraided the administrator.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “Your agency should be ashamed of itself. Your job is to protect the public health and you are taking actions to make this crisis worse.”
Though it has eased air pollution controls since March, the EPA has approved 400 types of disinfectants to confront Covid-19 — a rapid scaling up from the mere 60 it approved back on March 5 when the U.S. was only first getting acquainted with life under a pandemic.
Since March, the agency has also opened 52 enforcement cases concerning emissions violations, charged 10 individuals, wrapped up 122 civil enforcement actions and initiated 115 others.
Wheeler confirmed too that the EPA will not meet a statutory deadline to assess 10 chemicals up for review under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
The 2016 law demanded EPA review whether chemicals made and used in America are hazardous. The legislation also provides until June 22 to complete the work, but Wheeler said the agency will likely have just two of 10 chemical reviews finished.
“We want to make sure we get it right,” Wheeler said.
Though the Covid-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty across the board, the EPA administrator said at least one thing should remain on schedule: another 45 environmental regulations it plans to lift this year.
Trump only 24 hours earlier issued a sweeping executive order directing agencies like the EPA and others to ignore a wide range of regulations so that businesses would be able to operate “without barriers” during the pandemic.
Dominique Browning, senior director and co-founder of Moms Clean Air Force, told Courthouse News there was no doubt many of the proposed rollbacks would result in dirtier air and bad outcomes for those most at risk.
“To protect vulnerable populations, the Senate should freeze EPA actions until the pandemic is over,” Browning said. “However, hell will freeze over before that happens, as was made clear by Wheeler’s protectors during this hearing. They are willing to sacrifice people’s lives in the service of their radical deregulatory ideologies.”
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