Some of the country's most polluting industries have flooded state regulators with requests to ease environmental regulations, according to an NPR review of hundreds of state environmental records.
Companies across the country say the pandemic is interfering with their ability to comply with laws that protect the public from pollution.
State environmental authorities are currently the only source of official information about which companies have sought regulatory relief. That's because in March, the Environmental Protection Agency told companies that they do not need to warn federal regulators if the pandemic interferes with routine pollution monitoring or testing.
That puts states alone on the front lines of environmental protection, even as they struggle to cope with the immediate effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Across the U.S., landfills, recycling facilities and other waste disposal companies asked state regulators to relax or delay pollution monitoring requirements. In Minnesota and Iowa, at least 70 hog feedlots asked for permission to either house extra animals or dispose of animal carcasses because meat-packing plants temporarily closed or slowed production. In Pennsylvania, Texas and Arkansas, regulators received requests from oil and gas companies asking the states to back off on enforcement of a wide range of environmental regulations, including checking for leaks in storage tanks and measuring pollution from smokestacks.
Most states do not publish any information about companies that say they are struggling to comply with environmental laws, which means most Americans who live near factories, refineries, farms and other sources of soot, smog and chemical emissions have no way to know whether the pandemic has led to extra pollution.
"I think it is a huge deal," says George Czerniak, the former director of the air and radiation division for the EPA regional office for the Upper Midwest. "I think that the potentially affected public has a right to know these things, and regulatory agencies and companies have a responsibility to share this information."
The EPA says that it will follow up with state authorities if the federal agency notices that a facility did not comply with regulations during the pandemic. "Most of our environmental laws have a federalism structure. That means states can be authorized to implement the regulatory program," wrote Ken Labbe, a spokesperson for the EPA, in an email to NPR.
'Almost anything could be blamed on the virus'
The EPA protects human health by creating rules about how much pollution can be released into the air and water. The day-to-day implementation of those rules largely falls to state environmental agencies, many of which have seen their funding cut in recent years. The EPA tracks facilities' compliance with regulations, and punishes companies that violate the law.
Under the March 2020 policy change, it's unclear how the federal agency will know if a facility releases extra pollution during the pandemic, especially if the factory, refinery, mine or farm is in a state that isn't tracking requests for regulatory waivers.
The EPA's passive enforcement policy is particularly worrisome for people who live downstream or downwind of facilities that consistently violated environmental regulations before the pandemic began. NPR found numerous instances in which companies with recent environmental violations requested that state authorities give them extra leeway to pollute, or to monitor pollution during the pandemic.
An Arkansas petroleum refinery owned by Lion Oil asked to delay repairs to two storage tanks because of the pandemic, according to records shared by the state environmental agency. The company has repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, including illegally releasing hundreds of thousands of gallons of petroleum into the water, and the EPA has repeatedly fined the company and ordered it to prevent future releases. The pandemic-related request to delay tank repairs is still pending.
Indiana authorities received a notice in April from the Gibson County Coal company stating that the company's mine in southwest Indiana emitted unsafe levels of ammonia into the water, and expected to continue polluting the water with ammonia and suspended solids for the duration of the health crisis, because the company is using so much bleach to disinfect its facilities.
That argument is frustrating to local public health advocate John Blair, who has lived in nearby Evansville, Ind. for 45 years. "Almost anything could be blamed on the virus," he says. "How long will this go on?"
According to EPA compliance data, the Gibson County Coal mine has repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act in recent years by releasing unsafe amounts of small particles, or suspended solids — one of the pollutants it ties to the pandemic in its April notice. Alliance Inc., which owns the mine, did not respond to questions about why the pandemic might affect emissions of suspended solids.
Blair says he feels that state regulators were already doing too little to protect him and his neighbors from air and water pollution in his industry-heavy region. "Now they have cover from the EPA to not look into things," he says. "I'm offended by it."
Indiana Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson Barry Sneed says Gibson County Coal has agreed to stop releasing wastewater that contains high levels of ammonia.
In some cases, the EPA's March policy change appears to shape requests corporations made to state regulators. In Indiana, the head of the state's environmental authority received a letter from Marathon Petroleum Corp. on the same day the EPA announced its new policy, that asks for permission to delay or skip pollution monitoring and reporting at more than a dozen facilities.
The letter lists ten regulatory categories — eight of which appear in the EPA's memo — with which the company said it might not be able to comply because of the pandemic, including testing how much pollution comes out of smokestacks and drainage pipes.
"That was an extraordinarily broad request," says Janet McCabe, who served as EPA Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, and now directs the Environmental Resilience Institute at Indiana University. "It just seems like it's totally taking advantage of the situation."
Sneed says the department denied Marathon's request, and told the company to submit more specific requests for individual facilities.
Robert Verchick, an environmental law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and a former EPA deputy associate administrator, says it's not surprising that the EPA's policy opened the door to such sweeping requests. "The federal government sets the tone," he says, and the EPA's memo was broad.
The right to know
Only a handful of states, including Minnesota, Indiana and Pennsylvania, publish details online about which companies have contacted state environmental authorities for regulatory relief. Only Minnesota publishes details for all requests, including requests that are pending or denied.
"Ideally that information would be on a state website somewhere, and the people who need the information would be able to find it," says Verchick.
Minnesota is also one of nine states, including California and New York, that is challenging the EPA's relaxed enforcement during the pandemic in court.
In an April letter to the EPA, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra demanded that the agency change its policy and begin publishing information about companies that do not comply with environmental regulations due to the pandemic. "These reports must also immediately be made publicly available so that the impacted communities can take necessary steps to mitigate the potential impacts from such noncompliance," Becerra wrote.
The California Environmental Protection Agency itself does not publish such reports on its website. The agency did not respond to questions about requests for regulatory leniency that the state has received due to the pandemic.
New York also does not publicly track pandemic-related leniency requests, despite leading the lawsuit against the EPA. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation suggests that citizens file formal public records requests if they want information about companies that have told the state they cannot comply with environmental rules.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Lion Oil of Arkansas released millions of gallons of petroleum into a waterway. The company released about 200,000 gallons of petroleum.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Hundreds of factories, refineries, farms and mines across the country say they cannot comply with some environmental regulations because of the pandemic. This is according to an NPR review of hundreds of state environmental records. Those records show that companies have asked for a wide range of special permission during this pandemic, including things like delaying checking for leaks in storage tanks and measuring pollution from smokestacks. NPR science reporter Rebecca Hersher is here to talk about this. Hi, Becky.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hi there.
GREENE: OK. So industry is saying, there's a pandemic. We need some special allowances here. What exactly are we talking about?
HERSHER: Well, it's a real grab bag. Some of the issues are relatively minor, like submitting an annual report late. But I also found a fair number of substantial requests, mostly from industries that release a lot of pollution. Like, landfills have been asking states to relax pollution monitoring rules. Hog farms have asked for permission to house extra animals because meatpacking plants were temporarily closed. And oil and gas companies asked for states to back off on enforcement of a wide range of environmental regulations.
GREENE: I mean, help me understand why an oil or gas company has trouble being able to check for pollution because of a pandemic.
HERSHER: Well, there are a couple reasons. Maybe furloughs get in the way, like if employees who usually write and file pollution reports aren't working because of the pandemic. Another reason the companies gave is that a lot of pollution monitoring is done by outside contractors, and they were trying to limit people coming onto facilities because of the virus. We know these details, though, because a small number of states make them public. But another problem here is that no one is systematically keeping track of these types of nationwide requests.
GREENE: No one keeps an eye on who - on these industries and what they're asking for right now? Why is that?
HERSHER: Well, back in March, the Environmental Protection Agency - the EPA - put out a pandemic policy that said companies don't need to warn federal regulators if they feel like the pandemic is interfering with routine pollution monitoring or testing. Instead, they said states could keep track of that information if they choose to. The EPA says, this is how it works. It partners with states. And that is how a lot of environmental regulation works, although former EPA officials say that this policy gives industries a lot of leeway.
Now, some states are doing this kind of tracking. But I found that most states don't publish any information about which companies say the pandemic is getting in the way. And that means most Americans who live near factories or refineries, farms, they have no way to know whether the pandemic is causing extra pollution.
GREENE: I mean, that kind of uncertainty is a big problem for people who live near these sorts of facilities, I would imagine.
HERSHER: Yeah, especially for people who live downstream or downwind of facilities that have violated environmental laws in the past. And I found a fair number of examples like this. So for example, there's a mine in Indiana. In early April, the mine said it was releasing wastewater with high levels of ammonia and small particles because they were cleaning buildings with a lot of bleach to kill the virus. That same mine, though, has repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act in the past by releasing water with too many small particles in it. And I talked to a local resident who lives downstream. He was really frustrated. His name is John Blair.
JOHN BLAIR: The air pollution is visible. The water pollution is less visible. And, you know, I mean, almost anything could be blamed on the virus, I suppose.
HERSHER: Now, the state told the mine to stop releasing water with high levels of ammonia. And many of the requests I looked at were denied. But the only reason we know about that interaction is because Indiana published it publicly. And most states are not doing that, which means most Americans are in the dark.
GREENE: NPR science reporter Rebecca Hersher. Becky, thanks for that reporting.
HERSHER: Thanks so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "SEVEN HUNTERS [DAM MANTLE MIX]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.