Democrats decry 'pandemic of pollution' under Trump's EPA

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats on Wednesday blasted the Trump administration's moves to roll back environmental regulations during the coronavirus crisis, with one senator saying the administration has unleashed a "pandemic of pollution.''

The Environmental Protection Agency has weakened regulations dealing with fuel efficiency and mercury emissions and has allowed companies to determine themselves if they can meet reporting requirements for air and water pollution during the crisis. The rollbacks are among dozens of actions by the EPA to slash requirements on industry to monitor, report and reduce toxic pollutants, heavy metals and climate-damaging fossil fuel emissions.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency remains “open for business" and "at work meeting our mission of protecting human health and the environment.''

Wheeler told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday that the EPA has approved hundreds of virus-killing disinfectants in recent weeks. More than 400 disinfectants are now agency-approved, Wheeler said, up from 60 on March 5.

Wheeler touted a series of actions the agency has taken, including a revised rule that lifts protections for millions of miles of streams and wetlands. The long-sought rule change to the Clean Water Act provides much needed regulatory certainty and predictability for American farmers, landowners and businesses, Wheeler said.

Similarly, he defended new rules that relax fuel efficiency standards imposed by the Obama administration and roll back President Barack Obama's signature environmental achievement: the Clean Power Plan curb of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The EPA issued 18 deregulatory actions last year and is developing 45 more right now, saving businesses billions of dollars in regulatory costs, Wheeler said. The actions do not come at the cost of enforcing environmental laws, he added, but are aimed at "modernizing decades-old regulations and bring them up to date.''

Democrats scoffed at that claim.

The EPA under Trump, a Republican, "has continued its relentless march to weaken or repeal rules that were designed to remove greenhouse gas, soot, mercury and other pollution from our air,'' said a staff report released by Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the panel's senior Democrat.

Since March 1, the EPA has proposed or finalized several rules that will result in increased air pollution and could cause tens of thousands of premature deaths, the report said.

“While the rest of the country works around the clock to combat and overcome this deadly respiratory pandemic, the Trump EPA has been spearheading a pandemic of pollution,” Carper said.

The EPA's actions have removed “critical protections for public health under the guise of industry relief and economic growth,” Carper added. “Under normal circumstances, these rollbacks would be cause for grave concern. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they are profoundly irresponsible and cause for alarm.''

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the environment committee's chair, said the EPA under Wheeler and Trump “has replaced punishing regulations that harmed the coal industry, farmers and ranchers and many small businesses” in Wyoming and across the country.

Under Trump, the EPA has saved U.S. businesses more than $5 billion in regulatory costs, Barrasso said.