How many people have traveled down a thoroughfare in Billings and thought, "Huh, how can that possibly be considered an essential business?"
While it's hard to figure the logic of which businesses are staying open as essential and which ones are closed, it's a good reminder that even during this time of crisis and closure because of COVID-19, things aren't so black or white.
So, if some businesses can keep running, even though we're not sure what makes them essential, it seems a bit odd that the federal government is relaxing the environmental protection rules on pollution during this time. In other words, fast food can stay open, but we may be willing to look the other way on industrial pollution.
We understand the basis of this new directive: Labs may be busy helping out other clients during the pandemic and not have time to process water or air samples. Moreover, some of the businesses that supply materials and people power may be closed, making it impossible to monitor some large industrial sites. This would leave these federally monitored sites in impossible situations.
We're concerned that certain supposedly temporary rollbacks on testing won't turn out to be permanent. Even more importantly, we worry that in our zeal to protect the health of citizens by shutting down the economy and socially distancing, we might be sacrificing clean water and clean air for the purpose of expediency. Think about it this way: Coronavirus causes respiratory disease; and so will pollution if we allow it.
Federal and state officials are quick to point out that these new agency rules, which allow for flexibility, don't give a free pass on pollution. But they say the EPA will not seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring and laboratory testing if there is evidence of COVID-19 delays. In other words, if companies or entities which are required to test for pollution can prove that the coronavirus is at fault for the lack of compliance, the EPA will not pursue fines.
We wonder how far that regulatory free-pass can be stretched. We wonder if the EPA and the state will simply accept that as an excuse, or will they, as the law requires, insist that operations that must test "provide supporting documentation?"
We worry that the already overworked regulatory agencies like the state's Department of Environmental Quality or the regional EPA may simply move on, like the rest of the world after the immediate threat of COVID-19 lifts.
The real problem, of course, is that without monitoring the public will not know what was put into the water or air and how dangerous those materials are. The EPA has said these new rules in no way allow for more pollution, but at the same time, the agency has relaxed testing standards. That's a clever parsing of the situation.
While we understand and appreciate that virtually no aspect of life anywhere has been left untouched by the coronavirus, we're worried that relaxing these rules will allow big polluters to go unchecked for awhile.
We wish we could trust polluters to make the right decision not to exploit this opening while we all work through this situation. And, perhaps they will.
We're reminded of the Russian proverb that President Ronald Reagan turned around so deftly on the Soviets during arms control negotiations, "Trust but verify."
We can't be so worried about COVID-19 that we're willing to forego all the hard work Montanans have done to clean up our air and water and hold those who pollute accountable.
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