Federal agencies work to dirty our air while we fight respiratory illness


While Americans are sheltering in their homes in order to protect their health, federal agencies are working hard to unravel other safeguards for them. 

On March 28 the Environmental Protection Agency issued an order that absolves polluters from federal enforcement of many reporting duties required under the laws governing our air, water and lands. The oil and gas industry, in particular, asked for regulations to be relaxed.

The memorandum from the EPA stipulates that industry must document violations of operations such as integrity testing or air quality monitoring, but are only required to report if asked, letting them off the hook if something is wrong.

For example, oil refineries are mandated to monitor releases of benzene, a chemical which is known to cause cancer. Last year at least 10 refineries across the U.S. exceeded allowed thresholds.

The memo also abdicates enforcement of other violations to state and local governments, which vary widely in their approaches to polluters. It is not known at this time how California will respond to this dereliction of duty at the federal level.

Worse, the EPA issued another order on April 16 weakening regulations on the release of mercury and other toxic metals from oil and coal-fired power plants. Another little-noticed announcement allows refineries to stop producing their less polluting summer blends. And on March 31, the feds dealt clean air another blow by revoking the fuel economy standards put in place by President Obama in 2012, the biggest U.S. effort toward combatting climate change and cleaning our air.

This is part of a continuing effort to not only unravel all of Obama's legacy, but also do the bidding of the oil industry, which includes pulling out of the Paris climate accords and dismantling the Clean Power Plan which would have reduced carbon pollution from power plants.

California has especially been in the crosshairs. In September, the administration announced that it was revoking California's waiver under the Clean Air Act to set stricter standards for vehicle emissions. Also targeted are the state's Zero Emissions Vehicle policy and cap-and-trade system, all lynchpins in our ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus become a model for the U.S. and the world on tackling climate change.

The timing could not be worse. According to John Balmes, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at UCSF, "There is fairly strong evidence that air pollution increases the risk of acute low respiratory infections. And it may have contributed to the extent of the outbreak in Wuhan."

As we battle a new public health threat, we must be cognizant of the one that already existed — climate change. We will pull through these dark times using science to combat the coronavirus. We cannot turn our backs on the science that already exists to keep us from the dangers of a warming planet.