Thousands of oil and gas operations, government facilities and other sites won permission to stop monitoring for hazardous emissions or otherwise bypass rules intended to protect health and the environment because of the coronavirus outbreak, The Associated Press has found.
The result: approval for less environmental monitoring at some Texas refineries and at an army depot dismantling warheads armed with nerve gas in Kentucky, manure piling up and the mass disposal of livestock carcasses at farms in Iowa and Minnesota, and other risks to communities as governments eased enforcement over smokestacks, medical waste shipments, sewage plants, oilfields and chemical plants.
The Trump administration paved the way for the reduced monitoring on March 26 after being pressured by the oil and gas industry, which said lockdowns and social distancing during the pandemic made it difficult to comply with anti-pollution rules. States are responsible for much of the oversight of federal environmental laws, and many followed with leniency policies of their own.
AP’s two-month review found that waivers were granted in more than 3,000 cases, representing the overwhelming majority of requests citing the outbreak. Hundreds of requests were approved for oil and gas companies. AP reached out to all 50 states citing open-records laws; all but one, New York, provided at least partial information, reporting the data in differing ways and with varying level of detail.
Almost all those requesting waivers told regulators they did so to minimize risks for workers and the public during a pandemic — although a handful reported they were trying to cut costs.
The Environmental Protection Agency says the waivers do not authorize recipients to exceed pollution limits. Regulators will continue pursuing those who “did not act responsibly under the circumstances,” EPA spokesman James Hewitt said in an email.
But environmentalists and public health experts say it may be impossible to fully determine the impact of the country's first extended, national environmental enforcement clemency because monitoring oversight was relaxed. “The harm from this policy is already done,” said Cynthia Giles, EPA’s former assistant administrator under the Obama administration.
EPA has said it will end the COVID enforcement clemency this month.
Refinery giant Marathon Petroleum, already struggling financially before the pandemic, was one of the most aggressive in seeking to dial back its environmental monitoring. On the same day EPA announced its new policy, the Ohio-based company asked Indiana officials for relief from its leak detection, groundwater sampling, spill prevention, emissions testing and hazardous waste responsibilities at its facilities statewide.
“We believe that by taking these measures, we can do our part to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” Tim Peterkoski, environmental auditing and processes manager for Marathon Petroleum, told the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
Marathon also pushed for and was granted permission to skip environmental tests at many of its refineries and gas stations in California, Michigan, North Dakota and Texas.
Spokesman Jamal Kheiry said Marathon sought broad regulatory relief early in the pandemic, when it was uncertain how long lockdowns would last or how its operations would be affected. But the company continued emissions monitoring and other activities and usually met deadlines, he said.
Penny Aucoin, a resident of New Mexico’s oil-rich Permian Basin, said since the pandemic, she and her husband have spent days begging regulators to investigate surges of noxious gas or hisses that they feared could signal a dangerous leak from one of the many oil and gas companies operating near their mobile home.
“There’s nobody watching,” Aucoin said. “A lot of stuff is going wrong. And there’s nobody to fix it.”
Maddy Hayden, New Mexico's environmental spokesperson, said her agency stopped in-person investigations of citizen air-quality complaints from March to May to protect staff and the public but stood ready to respond to emergencies.
Almost every state reported fielding requests from industries and local governments to cut back on compliance. Many were for activities like delaying in-person training or submitting records by email rather than paper. Others, however, were requests for temporary exemptions or extensions on monitoring and repairs to stop the flow of harmful soot, toxic compounds, disease-carrying contaminants or heavy metals, AP found.
Regulators, for example, waived in-person inspections at parts of a former nuclear test site in Nevada, switching to drive-by checks.
North Carolina allowed Chemours Co., which is cleaning up dangerous PFAS industrial compounds in drinking water, to pause sampling of residential wells because it would require entering elderly residents' homes.
Saint-Gobain, whose New Hampshire plant has been linked by the state to water contaminated with PFAS chemicals, has requested delaying smokestack upgrades that would address the problem. The company says the delays are necessary partly due to problems the company's suppliers and contractors have faced because of the coronavirus.
State Rep. Rosemarie Rung, a Democrat who uses bottled water due to the PFAS contamination, said the company was “just dragging their feet.”
The AP's findings run counter to statements in late June by Susan Bodine, EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement, who told lawmakers the pandemic was not causing “a significant impact on routine compliance, monitoring and reporting” and that industry wasn't widely seeking relief from monitoring.
A separate analysis of EPA enforcement data shows 40% fewer tests of smokestacks were conducted in March and April compared with the same period last year, according to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a network of academics and non-profits.
Hewitt, the EPA spokesman, said the agency did not know why there were fewer tests but pointed to the plunge in economic activity accompanying the pandemic, and said closed facilities would have been unable to test smokestacks.
Oil and gas companies received a green light to skip dozens of scheduled tests and inspections critical for ensuring safe operations, such as temporarily halting or delaying tests for leaks or checking on tank seals, flare stacks, emissions monitoring systems or engine performance, which could raise the risk of explosions.
Taken together, the missed inspections for leaks could add hundreds or thousands of tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and could be making refinery work more dangerous, said Coyne Gibson, a former oil and gas engineer and a member of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance in Texas.
“The whole point of leak detection is to avoid people being harmed from a leak of toxic material,” said Victor Flatt, environmental law professor at the University of Houston. “If you suspend leak detection, you don't even know if it's happening.”
Monitoring and other pollution regulations often are depicted as legally mandated paperwork requirements, said Philip J. Landrigan, a biology professor and director of the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College. But air pollution alone increases risks of heart disease, stroke, lung disease and premature births, and when environmental standards are not held to, “as surely as night follows day there are going to be an increased number of deaths from those causes,” Landrigan said.
EPA’s policy was “primarily related to record keeping, training and flexibility in the timing of routine inspections where there may have been limited personnel or capabilities due to COVID-19,” said Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president at The American Petroleum Institute, which pushed for the policy. He maintained the industry’s pollution control equipment continues to operate.
In North Dakota, regulators granted Oklahoma-based ONEOK’s request to bypass groundwater sampling at its natural gas liquids processing plant in Garden Creek, where regulators said at least 837,000 gallons of natural gas liquids have spilled from a leak since 2015.
ONEOK skipped sampling because of safety concerns about third-party contractors traveling during the pandemic, and the company resumed sampling in June, spokesman Brad Borror said.
Some states were generous with exemptions. Arkansas granted a blanket, months-long waiver to oil and gas companies for safety testing of temporarily abandoned wells and other activities.
Alaska authorized delayed inspections at dozens of massive tanks used to store petroleum, and let companies defer drills designed to ensure they can quickly respond to major oil spills. It also said the state would take no action against companies for not complying with some air pollution regulations in instances related to COVID-19.
In Wyoming, regulators gave breaks on air emissions rules in about 300 cases, mostly for oil and gas companies, including ExxonMobil and Sinclair.
It wasn't just huge industry that requested the exemptions.
As supply chains broke down at the start of the outbreak, Minnesota granted more than 90 waivers on how many animals could be stuffed into feedlots, potentially raising risks of water contamination from manure. Farms and landfills in Iowa received variances on animal disposal regulations to allow for the mass burial and composting of livestock.
Michigan approved or was reviewing requests from several cities to delay replacing lead water pipes or testing for lead, spurred in some instances by the Flint water crisis.
Eric Schaeffer, a former director of EPA’s office of civil enforcement under President George W. Bush, dismissed assurances from governments that reducing monitoring during the outbreak wouldn't lead to a surge in pollutants.
“It’s like saying we’re going to remove the radar guns and remove speedometers, but you still have to comply with the speed limit," said Schaeffer, now head of the Environmental Integrity Project advocacy group. "That doesn’t make sense.”