How To Fight Coronawashing

“Fife Ethylene Plant” by Richard Webb is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency shocked environmentalists by announcing that companies do not need to meet environmental standards – including monitoring and reporting – during the coronavirus outbreak. This week, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than 20 environmental groups petitioned the EPA for more “stringent disclosure,” calling the memo a “license to pollute” and a “clear opportunity for abuse.”

The EPA move is “essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future,” said former EPA Office of Enforcement head Cynthia Giles, and even more frightening given the fact that air pollution makes people more vulnerable to viruses like COVID-19 because it lowers our ability to fight off infection and may, in fact, help spread it.

On Thursday, the EPA’s Inspector General released a report in direct contradiction (which EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler called to be rescinded, natch) urging the agency to more effectively notify communities about health risks from ethylene-oxide plants where petrochemicals are produced – such as ethylene glycol, used to make plastics – or medical devices are sterilized. Ethylene glycol is highly toxic and was classified as a human carcinogen in 2016.

But the EPA’s recommendation to suspend enforcement didn’t come out of nowhere. Recent requests to federal agencies citing COVID-19 include the American Petroleum Institute asking to suspend the rules governing the repair of leaky equipment and water pollution monitoring equipment, coal companies requesting payment suspension on mine cleanups, the trucking industry seeking to eliminate driving hour limits for workers, and oil producers pushing for a deadline shift to summer-grade gas. Not to mention the plastics industry working overtime to repeal bag bans.

Reasonable requests – or coronawashing? Whatever the reason, it’s working.  Last week, the Trump Administration rolled back auto pollution rules, which will release an additional 1.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually and are expected to increase premature deaths by 32,000 and hospital visits by 125,000 in the next three decades. And the Department of Interior began a fire sale on oil drilling leases, and appointed a former oil and gas lobbyist – best known for speeding up fracking permits in Oklahoma, stopping a study of miners and the health impacts of strip mining, and a roll back of worker safety regulations on oil rigs – to write its pandemic response plan.

 What can we do? Vote. According to the non-partisan, non-profit Environmental Voter Project, 15 million environmentalists don’t vote. They’re working to connect with these non-voters especially in places like Florida, where 547,000 environmentalists who were registered to vote didn’t in 2016 – Trump won that state by 112,000 votes. And Pennsylvania, where 300,000 sat out the election in a state that Trump took by 44,000 votes.  In 2018, EVP convinced nearly 60,000 voters in these and four other swing states to vote for the very first time. 

Do you know an environmentalist who didn’t vote in 2018? I do. And this year he’s voting, if I have to carry him to the polls myself. How about you? Please share in comments below. Thanks!

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