What Does COVID-19 Have to Do With Industrial Pollution?

Tehachapi, California. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The industry lobbyists were lined up at the trough last week grabbing hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars from the corporate-heavy giveaways in the Senate’s $2.2 trillion ($2,200,000,000,000) “relief” bill while average Americans get a relative pittance. That’s no surprise considering it came from the Senate’s Republican majority and Trump’s Treasury Secretary and former Goldman Sachs executive Steve Mnuchin. But apparently looting the Treasury wasn’t enough – so the Environmental Protection Agency announced it was suspending environmental enforcement for industrial polluters for an undetermined amount of time into the future.

As reported by the The Hill: “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a sweeping suspension of its enforcement of environmental laws Thursday, telling companies they would not need to meet environmental standards during the coronavirus outbreak.

The temporary policy, for which the EPA has set no end date, would allow any number of industries to skirt environmental laws, with the agency saying it will not ‘seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations.’”

Of course it’s no secret that the Trump administration has the worst anti-environmental record in modern times. It’s also no secret that the very agency established almost half a century ago to “protect the environment” is now overseen by former industry lobbyist David Bernhardt, who replaced Ryan Zinke as secretary of the Interior when he resigned last year. Given that Bernhardt’s law firm represented oil, gas, mining, and fought the court order to leave water in California’s Sacramento-San Juaquin delta for endangered salmon, it’s no surprise he would use any excuse to deregulate the extractive industries he once represented.

But as the nation writhes in unprecedented pain under the ever-spreading human and economic trauma of the coronavirus, how will allowing polluting industries to escape monitoring and enforcement help contain the pandemic? The short answer is, “it won’t.”

What it will do is leave the nation’s environment in worse shape than it is after nearly four years of Trump’s crazed run of deregulating polluting industries while increasing human health and long-term environmental damages. The former head of EPA’s enforcement division called the move “a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future” adding because “it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was.”

The move carries particular concern for Montanans for the simple reason that we live in a state with lots of polluting and extractive industries — and more than our share of toxic leftovers from formerly unregulated industrial activities. Being home to the nation’s largest Superfund site — the Butte-Clark Fork complex — is nothing to brag about. And the Clark Fork environmental nightmare is only one of dozens of Superfund sites in Montana.

Meanwhile, the fracking operations in the Bakken Formation are under extreme financial distress due to falling demand and the collapse of international oil market. Remember all that radioactive fracking waste the operations produce and how they’re already landfilling it in Montana? How handy that it can now “disappear” and no one, including the EPA, will ever know where it went. Toss in refineries, coal-fired power plants, mines, railroads and leaking pipelines and it’s a veritable cornucopia of pollutants which now don’t have to be monitored or reported.

This latest move by the Trump administration doesn’t add insult to injury. Instead, it creates deadly, long-term environmental damages that, like Trump’s record deficits, only add to the already crippling burdens on future generations — and shamefully it does absolutely nothing to do address the increasing impacts of the on-going coronavirus pandemic.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.