Montanans Deserves Environmental Protections, Even During the Coronavirus Crisis

Montanans deserve government agencies willing to protect us from public health threats – our taxes pay for it and our state constitution demands it.

The COVID-19 pandemic makes this truth more evident and urgent than ever.  However, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Dept. of Environmental Protection – public agencies tasked with enforcing environmental protections – are doing the precise opposite.

In late March, the EPA issued a memorandum titled “COVID-19 Implications for EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program,” and days later MDEQ followed suit by issuing a memorandum entitled “DEQ compliance and enforcement discretion in response to COVID-19.”  Under these new directives our environmental agencies will only enforce pollution control rules when it suits them and, equally troubling, the public has zero input into such process.  Representing an unprecedented abandonment of legal responsibility to enforce vital protections for our health, our drinking water, our cherished rivers, and even the air we breathe, every Montanan should be concerned for at least two reasons.

First, these enforcement memos are astounding in their scope of discretion.  The public has never seen such blanket discretion policies from both state and federal regulators, policies that literally invite industry and polluters to ignore their environmental obligations and pollution control requirements, without public knowledge or agency oversight.  Neither policy is limited to specific sectors, facilities, or even geographic or exposure-related parameters.  This is both alarming and dangerous and may magnify local-level impacts related to COVID-19 and long-term pollution.  Because of these policies, pollution won’t be stopped before it happens.  Instead, we’ll find out when it’s too late — after the damage has already been done.

Equally troubling is the lack of transparency at-hand.  There is almost no way for those who will be most affected by discretionary enforcement of polluters and polluting activities to know whether the activity in their backyard – whether an incinerator, a construction site, or a wastewater facility – is in fact following the law and science-based rules and adequately controlling their pollution.

While both EPA and MDEQ have made gestures that their discretion will be utilized “reasonably,” the very existence of these memos negates the deterrent effect environmental laws normally carry: e.g., polluters now know up front that they’re likely to get a free pass if they break the rules.

The laws our agencies are now “flexibly” enforcing are not trivial.  State and federal environmental laws represent over 40-years of hard-won, science-backed safeguards that protect the health of all Montanans, not to mention the water we drink and the air we breathe.  Environmental laws exist to control and reduce pollution because experts agree that pollution is harmful to our health.  So too in Montana we know that pollution is also harmful to the countless businesses and families dependent on the clean air, healthy streams and forests that support Montana’s economy and livelihood.

It is a tragic coincidence that COVID-19 disproportionately affects minority and disadvantaged communities, people who are already more likely to live in areas with industrial polluting activities, because these same communities are now more prone to experience severe health disparities that arise as a result of increased pollution in our environment from discretionary enforcement.  Chronic health conditions such as heart and lung disease, and asthma, factors that make a person more at-risk to COVID-19, could increase because of discretionary enforcement of environmental laws.

As one of the few organizations in Montana that enforces the Clean Water Act – a set of laws that ensure our waters are swimmable, fishable, and drinkable – Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is deeply concerned about the long-term consequences EPA’s and MDEQ’s indefinite pause in environmental law enforcement will have on our communities and waterways.

Now is not the time to abandon critical environmental protections.

Our health and the health of Montana’s keynote waterways is directly linked to pollution exposure and environmental degradation, which is why environmental agencies on both the state and federal level should be doing their jobs, not sitting on their hands.