As the novel coronavirus spreads across the United States, and the number of cases and deaths rise with stunning speed, the Environmental Protection Agency is giving oil refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities an unprecedented pass to pollute.
A seven-page memo, citing the virus, invited industry to ignore vital safeguards for air, water and hazardous waste during the outbreak. The phrasing is bureaucratic and legalistic but indefensible and heartbreaking.
It is a sweeping abdication of EPA’s mission to protect our health and safety, at the worst possible time. That is because the millions of Americans living in places with high levels of air pollution, like Houston, are at a greater risk of suffering the worst effects from COVID-19.
We just want to breathe clean air. Especially now.
Air pollution already is a serious problem in Houston’s Pleasantville, where Achieving Community Tasks Successfully, or ACTS, works. The historic neighborhood is home to more than 3,000 people, mostly black and Latino and working class. For decades, communities of color and low wealth in Houston, including the Fifth Ward, Manchester and Sunnyside, have borne a disproportionate burden from this toxic threat.
Warehouses, metal recyclers, salvage yards and the East Loop surround Pleasantville. The heavily industrial, often dirty Ship Channel is just to the south. The cancer risk for the community’s residents is higher than the overall Houston area, but the nearest state-operated air quality monitor is on the other side of the freeway, two miles away.
ACTS recently launched a community-owned and managed monitoring network — the first of its kind in Texas — with funding from Environmental Defense Fund to get a clearer understanding of the harmful chemicals in our air. The data is under review for accuracy and replication, but suggests the air quality too often is not where it should be.
Even without the pressing threat of the coronavirus, people living in working-class communities like Pleasantville where the air is unsafe to breathe often have higher rates of lung and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Studies also have linked air pollution to larger numbers of people hospitalized with pneumonia. This creates a one-two punch of higher risk and fewer resources.
It is hard to imagine that the consequences of EPA’s retreat at the request of the American Petroleum Institute and other lobbyists will not be devastating to those who need protection the most.
Under the new policy, for example, oil refineries could use the coronavirus as an excuse to suspend federally mandated monitoring of cancer-causing benzene — and workers and neighboring communities would not know. They also could delay repairs to equipment, increasing the risk of fire or explosion, like the many we have seen in the Houston area over the past year.
Our Texas experience tells us that we cannot expect industry to regulate themselves. Shortly after Hurricane Harvey barreled into Houston in 2017, Gov. Greg Abbott suspended 46 environmental protections relating to air pollution and wastewater, among other issues, for nearly seven months.
Companies blamed the storm for more than 100 unauthorized releases of pollutants, including a massive leak of benzene that the city of Houston and EDF detected in the Manchester neighborhood, just three miles south across the Ship Channel from Pleasantville. The independent monitoring prompted EPA to conclude that Valero Energy Corp. had “significantly underestimated” and underreported the amount of the release to the state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, has yet to take enforcement action against the facility.
Industry says releases of excess pollution are rare. In fact, they are common, but rarely punished. Reports show TCEQ has penalized companies for fewer than 3 percent of illegal releases of harmful air pollution since 2011.
Like the EPA, the Texas agency has told companies that they may request exemptions from legal requirements while the coronavirus rages.
Thankfully, Harris County understands that protecting public health is an obligation, not a choice. The county has said it will enforce the law with “no exclusions” because families “do not suspend their concern” for their health and the air they breathe because of the outbreak.
Government at all levels should be doing everything it can to protect the public from air pollution right now. That includes rising to the challenge presented by the virus, prioritizing additional resources for high-risk communities, eliminating hot spots, and holding industry accountable for harmful pollution releases.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans could suffer the horrifying consequences of COVID-19. Instead of trying to take political advantage of this crisis, Trump’s EPA should work to save lives, especially the most vulnerable among us.
This article originally appeared on the Houston Chronicle.
Murray is a retired nurse and Pleasantville resident who founded Achieving Community Tasks Successfully. Craft is senior director for climate and health at Environmental Defense Fund.
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