Dems: Wheeler unleashing ‘pandemic of pollution’

Source: By Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 20, 2020

EPA has charged ahead with more than a half-dozen measures in recent months that could worsen air quality despite evidence that pollution makes people more vulnerable to COVID-19, according to a report released today by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).

In the midst of the crisis caused by the potentially fatal disease, EPA has unleashed “a pandemic of pollution,” the document says.

Carper, the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, made it public in advance of EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s scheduled appearance before the panel this morning for an oversight hearing (E&E Daily, May 18).

Among the steps undertaken by EPA since March, the report points to the rollback of long-term vehicle fuel efficiency standards set during the Obama administration; the scrapping of the legal basis for toxic pollutant limits for coal-fired power plants; and a proposal to leave national soot thresholds unchanged despite EPA career staff’s conclusions that the status quo contributes to thousands of premature deaths each year (Greenwire, April 14).

Most of those measures will have no immediate impact. Repeal of the legal underpinning of the power plant toxics standards, for example, leaves the actual emission limits in place, albeit potentially vulnerable to a lawsuit.

One exception could be an EPA plan to temporarily allow the sale of dirtier-burning wood stoves past last week’s compliance deadline for meeting stricter emission limits (Greenwire, May 19). The agency has so far not released data on the amount of added pollution that could result.

‘Pandemic of political propaganda’

In a rebuttal issued last night, Wheeler slammed Carper’s report as “nothing more than a pandemic of political propaganda.”

While not specifically disputing its contents, Wheeler highlighted other steps taken by EPA — such as dramatically expanding the number of disinfectants the public can use against COVID-19 — and said he is proud of the agency’s efforts.

The report urges EPA to focus on determining whether dirty air heightens susceptibility to COVID-19. It also recommends a stepped-up emphasis on compliance and monitoring work in low-income and minority communities that often suffer from poorer air quality and higher tolls from the viral disease.

An overview last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention preliminarily found that racial and ethnic minority groups bore “a disproportionate burden of illness and death” from COVID-19.

Earlier, a widely publicized Harvard University paper tentatively connected long-term exposure to slightly higher soot levels to a significantly greater risk of death from the disease.

As Wheeler has noted, that paper had not undergone the independent assessment known as peer review. Several weeks ago, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) asked both EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services to review the findings and report back to Congress as quickly as possible (E&E Daily, May 4).

Harris spokesman Walter Smoloski had no immediate comment when asked late yesterday in an email whether either agency has agreed to the request.