Tag Archive for: Vox

EPA Suspends Enforcement of Pollution Rules During Virus Epidemic

The EPA has suspended normal enforcement of air and water pollution rules during the corona virus epidemic. Critics fear it could cause more deaths. They also fear that rules forced through during the emergency could hamper future pollution control efforts. Specifically, a new, broadened rule would limit use of research based on confidential health information in regulatory decisions.

Full Text of EPA Memo

This 7-page memo from the EPA outlines the new policy. It says, the EPA will “generally not seek stipulated or other penalties for noncompliance…” The thrust of the memo: EPA is counting on industry to self-report violations. If violations relate to worker shortages due to the virus, EPA will not seek penalties. EPA will also give offenders time to remedy the situation.

Reaction from Interceptor

Sharon Lerner writes in The Interceptor that “EPA IS JAMMING THROUGH ROLLBACKS THAT COULD INCREASE CORONAVIRUS DEATHS.” The article cites the case of a Pasadena refinery exceeding benzene emission limits. It also cites problems in St. Johns, Louisiana. St. John reportedly has the highest cancer risk from air pollutants in the country. Area residents are routinely exposed to dozens of air pollutants, including the carcinogen chloroprene.

Residents worry that their weakened immune response from the chemicals will make them even more susceptible to the virus.

Review by New York Times

Lisa Friedman writes in The New York Times that “E.P.A., Citing Coronavirus, Drastically Relaxes Rules for Polluters.” The EPA, says the article, will focus during the outbreak “on situations that may create an acute risk or imminent threat to public health or the environment” and said it would exercise “discretion” in enforcing other environmental rules. In other words, they will focus primarily on the worst cases.

Ms. Friedman interviewed former EPA administrators. Gina McCarthy, who led the E.P.A. under the Obama administration and now serves as president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it “an open license to pollute.” Cynthia Giles, who headed the E.P.A. enforcement division during the Obama administration, said: “This is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules. It is so far beyond any reasonable response. I am just stunned.”

A current spokesperson for the EPA, Andrea Woods, disagreed. “For situations outside of routine monitoring and reporting,” she said, “the agency has reserved its authorities and will take the pandemic into account on a case-by-case basis.”

Protest by 21 Environmental and Watchdog Groups

Meanwhile, Rebecca Beitsch reports in The Hill that “Coalition petitions EPA for disclosure as agency OKs suspension of environmental monitoring.” She says, “Environmental groups have characterized the memo as a license to pollute, as companies will not have to submit regular reports to the EPA showing they are not violating environmental laws.” She cites a petition spearheaded by the Natural Resources Defense Council which was signed by 21 environmental and watchdog groups. “We fully appreciate the disruption and harm caused by the COVID‐19 pandemic. But EPA’s unprecedented non‐enforcement policy creates a clear opportunity for abuse,” states the petition.

LA Times Reports on Reaction by California Officials

The Los Angeles Times reports in an article by Susanne Rust, Louis Sahagun and Rosanna Xia. “Citing coronavirus, EPA suspends enforcement of environmental laws.” The LA Times article focuses on the response of California officials. “The severity of the COVID-19 crisis should not be used as an excuse by the EPA to relax enforcement of federal environmental laws designed to protect public health and safety,” said Serge Dedina, mayor of Imperial Beach. His city, on the Mexican border, is under constant siege from pollution. “This crisis has only underscored why protecting public health and safety and our environment is more critical than ever.”

Is EPA Using Crisis as Cover to Make Concessions to Polluters?

Vox in an article by By Zeeshan Aleem claimed that “The EPA appears to be using coronavirus to make huge concessions to polluters.” It says the rule will remain in place indefinitely. And it gives factories, power plants, and other major polluters tremendous discretion. Now they can decide whether or not the coronavirus will prevent them from meeting legal requirements on air and water pollution and hazardous waste management. “Many experts and environmental advocates say that while case-by-case relaxation of rules for companies that are short-staffed due to the pandemic makes sense, the expansiveness of the EPA’s directive appears both unprecedented and designed to give a green light to polluters to act recklessly at a time when air quality is acutely important for public health.”

Other Reaction from Around the Country

For additional perspectives see:

Business Insider: The Environmental Protection Agency says it won’t enforce its own rules during the coronavirus pandemic.

USA Today: EPA suspends some public health monitoring and enforcement because of coronavirus crisis.

Texas Tribune: Citing coronavirus pandemic, Trump administration stops enforcing environmental laws.

CBS News: “An open license to pollute”: Trump administration indefinitely suspends some environmental protection laws during coronavirus pandemic.

An Associated Press Article in Marketwatch: Citing coronavirus, EPA has stopped enforcing environmental laws

The list goes on. A google search returned 11,800,000 results.

Will TCEQ Follow EPA Lead?

To say this is controversial would be an understatement.

At the very time when people’s lives and health are threatened by the virus, the EPA is dialing back enforcement of pollution rules that protect their lives and health.

At best, you could characterize the reaction to the new rule as “practical” given new constrictions we all operate under.

But, like the national press, I worry that this is part of a broader effort to dial back enforcement against polluters. We see examples of pollution threats right here in the Lake Houston area almost every month. And we saw them before the pandemic.

The day the West Fork ran white. TCEQ alleges Liberty Materials mine upstream dumped 56 million gallons of process water into the San Jacinto.
Aerial photo taken March 6 shows neighboring properties in foreground flooded by process water from the Triple PG mine in Porter, Tx. This process water migrated through the forest into the floodplain of White Oak Creek which ultimately leads to Lake Houston and the drinking water of 2 million people.

It will be interesting to see how the TCEQ reacts to the new EPA stance. Will they fall in line? I expect their report on the latest concerns about the Triple PG mine on Friday. The mine allegedly violated the terms of a temporary injunction in its case with the Texas Attorney General. Stay tuned.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/1/2020

946 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Parallel Between Flooding and Corona Virus

A friend, Dr. Matthew Berg, CEO and Principal Scientist of Simfero Consultants, observed that flooding and the corona virus are alike. The more I thought about that, the more intrigued I became. Controlling both requires similar strategies.

Controlling Convergence is Key

Of course, when looking at the corona virus, it spreads from “one-to-many.” And when looking at flooding, the relationship is reversed, “many-to-one.” But stay with me for a moment. Because similarities will become apparent at the point of convergence.

Dozens of creeks and streams flow into Lake Houston from approximately 2,600 square miles.

Creeks and streams from 2,600 square miles converge on Lake Houston during heavy rains. That can cause flooding. Likewise, thousands of corona virus victims could soon flood the area’s limited number of hospitals.

Harvard Study Shows Hospitals Rapidly Becoming Overwhelmed

Last week, ProPublic published an article, “Are Hospitals Near Me Ready for Coronavirus? Here Are Nine Different Scenarios.” The article is about a Harvard Global Health Institute study. It modeled different rates for the spread of the virus: 20%, 40% and 60% of the population infected over 6, 12 and 18 months. The authors then compared results against the number of available hospital beds in various areas.

Interestingly, they used the Houston region as their first test case. In only one of the nine scenarios, did we have enough hospital beds to handle the flood of corona victims. That scenario was for 20% infected (the smallest percentage) over 18 months (the longest period).

Darkest blue represents 6-month peak, middle blue a 12-month peak, and lightest an 18-month peak.

In the graph above, the areas shaded with crosshatching represent the normal baseline level of bed occupancy for non-corona patients in Houston hospitals. The colored areas represent the percentage of the area’s population projected to seek admission within a 6-, 12- or 18-month period.

2.8X Available Hospital Beds

The ProPublica article about the Harvard study goes into much more detail. It looks at all 50 states, the number of ICU beds, available ventilators, people etc.

In Houston, the researchers found, “The influx of patients would require 14,300 beds over 12 months, which is 2.8 times the available beds in that time period. The Harvard researchers’ scenarios assume that each coronavirus patient will require 12 days of hospital care on average, based on data from China.”

ProPublica Article on Harvard Study

One hospital administrator said, ““The reality is that you can’t create unlimited hospital beds and ventilators. We have what we have, so we really have to hope that it’s enough, and that we’re prepared enough.”

Flattening the Curve Prevents Avoidable Deaths

Said the authors, “By modeling the data over the three time periods, the scenarios illustrate how much the nation could “flatten the curve” with social measures to ensure hospitals have greater capacity to care for coronavirus patients.”

Epidemiologist Dr. Marc Lipsitch, head of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics said, “The way to permanently stop new cases from setting off long chains of transmission is to have each case infect considerably less than one case on average. The numbers will go down. There will still be little outbreaks, but not big ones.”

Basically, Dr. Lipsitch argues that controlling the flood of victims early at the source is the only way to avoid overwhelming health care resources.

This YouTube video from Vox about Avoidable Deaths shows how slowing things down and flattening the curve helps everyone.


Parallel With Physical Flooding

It’s much the same in physical flooding. Too much water in too little time overwhelms the available capacity of streams, rivers and lakes. Property is destroyed. People die.

That’s why flood experts argue for upstream detention. This post about closing the detention pond loophole in Montgomery County flood regulations contains two FEMA case studies from Texas about the value of detention ponds. Slowing water down prevented flooding.

The beat the peak loophole in MoCo regulations says that if developers can prove they can get their runoff to the river before the peak of a flood, they don’t have to build detention ponds. That’s what happened in the 2200-acre Artavia development. Of course, this incentivizes developers to get their water to the river ASAP.

And that’s exactly the opposite of what you need to protect lives and property downstream.

It’s kind of like saying, “Let’s infect everybody as fast as we can.”

Slowing down the spread of the virus will give researchers time to develop a vaccine or for the population to develop herd immunitybefore hospitals become overwhelmed.

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine or herd immunity to protect downstream residents from greed. And there never will be. That’s why we need to close the “beat the peak” loophole before it’s too late.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/25/2020

939 Days after Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.