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Coronavirus Could Mean Relaxed Enforcement, More Pollution

Pollution levels in Washington state could rise under the state Department of Ecology's flexible enforcement of regulations. (Scott Garner/Flickr)
Pollution levels in Washington state could rise under the state Department of Ecology's flexible enforcement of regulations. (Scott Garner/Flickr)
April 13, 2020

SEATTLE -- Washington state and the federal government say they are relaxing enforcement of environmental regulations during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Washington State Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say the virus could interfere with industries' ability to comply with standards and are protecting the health of the agencies' employees and the public.

Katelyn Kinn, a clean water attorney with Puget Soundkeeper, says we likely won't know the effects of the flexibility in enforcement until after the crisis is over.

"Ultimately, it may be that important pollution standards just aren't followed, whether temporarily or for large periods of time," Kinn explains. "That could be sampling, that could be installation of important pollution reduction solutions on the ground."

Kinn says a likely scenario is that the Department of Ecology would have been aware of pollution issues during this outbreak but chose not to stop it. She says this has happened before, but could be a more regular occurrence under the agency's discretion in enforcing environmental protections.

Kinn says public health needs to be prioritized and that environmental laws and human health laws are deeply intertwined.

"That's especially important for certain cross-sections of our community who rely very heavily on clean water and clean air -- and really that's all of us," she states. "But there are also certain communities that are disproportionately impacted by that solution."

Kinn notes that this doesn't change environmental laws and that groups like hers still can file lawsuits to enforce regulations. But she adds that the Department of Ecology and EPA statements could set a dangerous precedent, comparing it to police giving out tickets in order to protect pedestrians and people from car accidents.

"If the police force were to make an announcement that they might not be ticketing this summer, that would probably cause an increase in speeding," she states.

UPDATE: A spokesperson for Department of Ecology says COVID-19 will not interfere with their ability to enforce environmental regulations and that state requirements remain in effect. He says the agency's priority is to protect public health and safety, and it has invited facilities or businesses to contact them about how to maintain compliance during the pandemic.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA