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.
At a time of so much uncertainty, the EPA is choosing to spend its limited resources on weakening environmental pro… https://t.co/DUYTIafQvH— SELC (Environmental Law) (@SELC (Environmental Law)) 1585339343.0
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."
EPA suspends enforcement of environmental laws amid coronavirus https://t.co/A00YmUACDS https://t.co/D9iZoXP5Hb— The Hill (@The Hill) 1585260425.0
So...it looks like while Americans nationwide are focused on protecting the health and safety of their loved ones,… https://t.co/NmZKf6GRdC— Mary Anne Hitt (@Mary Anne Hitt) 1585343441.0
This is one more sign of the Trump Administration's disregard for the environment & public health. We should not le… https://t.co/QyB0IpiD7v— Mary Anne Hitt (@Mary Anne Hitt) 1585344136.0
In response, head of the EPA's Office of Enforcement under President Barack Obama, Cynthia Giles, told The Hill:
"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."
Citing coronavirus pandemic, EPA indefinitely suspends environmental rules https://t.co/X6aUC3DiES— Raw Story (@Raw Story) 1585330804.0
BREAKING: In the midst of a public health crisis, @EPA issued a sweeping suspension of its enforcement of environme… https://t.co/9IbphzRKZN— Climate Reality (@Climate Reality) 1585345213.0
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 does everyone realize that the EPA yesterday decided to shut down its power enforce environmental laws in the U… https://t.co/DEMlc5G3ly— Keeanga-Yamahtta T. (@Keeanga-Yamahtta T.) 1585341833.0
Environmentalists need to keep moving forward because the other side is opportunistically using this moment to adva… https://t.co/Ttm9HrlDyp— Tim Guinee (@Tim Guinee) 1585320127.0
This is worth repeating: While the country is dealing with an unprecedented health crisis and millions are out of w… https://t.co/Bn2cSuNhOL— Climate Reality (@Climate Reality) 1585347967.0
Stop the EPA 4rm giving a free pass 2 polluters during the pandemic This is complete and total bull💩! … https://t.co/L10dNDUYWi— Trump Resign Now! (@Trump Resign Now!) 1585350174.0
When I said corporations own the government, this is what I meant. The @EPA is abandoning its mission in order to… https://t.co/8Q7a5MXaAu— Tom Steyer (@Tom Steyer) 1585325755.0
There are few better examples of @NaomiAKlein's shock doctrine than the oil + gas industry successfully lobbying to… https://t.co/2oAqZovUxI— Brian Merchant (@Brian Merchant) 1585330866.0
Republicans at the Federal and State levels are using the coronavirus pandemic to sneak in detrimental laws behind… https://t.co/1dnDR8dPEY— Barbra Streisand (@Barbra Streisand) 1585343039.0
Let's #NeverForget: when Americans were faced with a pandemic & critical shortages of masks for HCWs & 1st Responde… https://t.co/zYyULVG9di— Rachel McGonagill (@Rachel McGonagill) 1585339436.0
Under the cover of this crisis, the DoL is suspending its affirmative action guidelines. The EPA is also suspending… https://t.co/yL3mNi1nSO— 𝑨𝒍𝒊𝒄𝒊𝒂 (@𝑨𝒍𝒊𝒄𝒊𝒂) 1585333989.0
And today the EPA relaxes pollution standards "because of the corona virus crisis". WTF? WTF? WTF? #GeneralStrike… https://t.co/RTNCgQ9Xmk— Larry79115 (@Larry79115) 1585350107.0
Watch @AnaKasparian on #tytlive right now as she breaks down EPA suspending enforcement of environmental laws amid… https://t.co/rvOBTiDW8Y— The Young Turks (@The Young Turks) 1585340654.0
EPA's regulations are meant to keep people safe and healthy, particularly from respiratory illnesses. It's irrespon… https://t.co/ScYopbHcuu— Judy Chu (@Judy Chu) 1585321285.0
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?
So which of the GOP wealthy donors, likely a member of the API, committed a heinous environmental violation 2 weeks… https://t.co/ZV2wETYRuV— Andrew Valand (@Andrew Valand) 1585344635.0
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?"