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As EPA Steps Back, States Face Wave Of Requests For Environmental Leniency


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.


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.


Corrected: June 8, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
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.
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.