The saying "While the cat's away the mice will play" refers to people taking advantage of the absence of oversight to do as they like. While that is an apt description for what is happening now with the Trump administration using the public's focus on the global pandemic to roll back environmental protections, perhaps a better saying is "The inmates are running the asylum."
In other words, those least capable of running a group or organization are now in charge.
In the case of environmental protections, President Donald Trump's controversial choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency was Scott Pruitt who after a series of scandals resigned the position. Pruitt was replaced by the equally controversial Andrew Wheeler.
Both men shared one oft expressed goal prior to their appointment—to roll back as many EPA regulations as possible and support corporate interests, especially mining and fossil fuels.
Now, while the world focuses on slowing the spread of a virulent pathogen, Wheeler—a former coal industry lobbyist—and Trump are taking the opportunity to suspend enforcement of EPA laws and give companies the go-ahead to pollute at will.
EPA head Wheeler said in a statement:
"EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public... may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements."
"This EPA statement is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future."
"It tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way 'caused' by the virus pandemic. And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was."
The move came largely in response to a 10 page request from the American Petroleum Institute. The trade association specifically asked to have the requirement to stop leaks and protect groundwater from those leaks suspended.
Of the memo that announced the suspension of EPA law enforcement, Giles said:
"Incredibly, the EPA statement does not even reserve EPA's right to act in the event of an imminent threat to public health. Instead, EPA says it will defer to states, and 'work with the facility' to minimize or prevent the threat."
"EPA should never relinquish its right and its obligation to act immediately and decisively when there is threat to public health, no matter what the reason is. I am not aware of any instance when EPA ever relinquished this fundamental authority as it does in this memo."
But not everyone was distracted enough for the EPA roll backs to go unnoticed.
And some eagle-eyed individuals noted a detail in the EPA memo.
The suspension of enforcement is retroactive, which begs the question of who violated EPA laws before they had permission to violate EPA laws?
The Trump administration also plans to roll back rules that raised fuel-economy standards on new vehicles and recommended approval of a proposed 211 mile road through Alaska's Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve to open the area for strip mining operations.
While the pandemic is serious and deserves the attention it receives, clean air and potable water are things people need before, during and after this public health crisis.
The book The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump is available here.
"Not long ago Republicans took pride in their tradition of environmental leadership. The GOP helped create the EPA, extend the Clean Air Act, and protect endangered species. Today Republicans denounce climate change as a "hoax" and seek to dismantle environmental regulations. What happened?"