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EPA Announces and Clarifies Temporary Enforcement Discretion Policy
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By Lynn L. Bergeson

EPA announced on March 26, 2020, a temporary policy regarding enforcement of environmental legal obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic. EPA states that its temporary enforcement discretion policy applies to civil violations during the COVID-19 outbreak. The policy addresses different categories of noncompliance differently. For example, according to EPA, it “does not expect to seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations that are the result of the COVID-19 pandemic but does expect operators of public water systems to continue to ensure the safety of our drinking water supplies.” The policy describes the steps that regulated facilities should take to qualify for enforcement discretion. To be eligible for enforcement discretion, the policy requires facilities to document decisions made to prevent or mitigate noncompliance and demonstrate how the noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

EPA notes that its policy does not provide leniency for intentional criminal violations of law and that it does not apply to activities that are carried out under Superfund and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Corrective Action enforcement instruments. EPA states that it will address these matters in separate communications. The policy states that it does not apply to imports. According to the policy, EPA is “especially concerned about pesticide products entering the United States, or produced, manufactured, distributed in the United States, that claim to address COVID-19 impacts.” EPA “expects to focus on ensuring compliance with requirements applicable to these products to ensure protection of public health.”

The policy will apply retroactively beginning on March 13, 2020. EPA will assess the continued need for and scope of this temporary policy on a regular basis and will update it if EPA determines modifications are necessary. To provide fair and sufficient notice to the public, EPA states that it will post a notification on its website at least seven days prior to terminating the temporary policy.

On March 30, 2020, the EPA issued a Press Release to clarify this Temporary Policy. The impetus for the Press Release was based, according to EPA, on the “reckless propaganda” by certain news outlets that provided erroneous or exaggerated information about the Temporary Policy, particularly that the Temporary Policy is providing a blanket waiver of environmental requirements or is creating a presumption that the COVID-19 pandemic is the cause of noncompliance.

EPA’s Press Release outlines certain elements of the Temporary Policy that should not be overlooked:

  • The Temporary Policy states that EPA will not seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting requirements, if, on a case-by-case basis, EPA agrees that such noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Policy is not intended to cover:
     
    • Exceedances of pollutant limitations in permits, regulations, and statutes.
       
    • Cases which may involve acute risks or imminent threats, or failure of pollution control or other equipment that may result in exceedances, except in possible circumstances where the facility contacts the appropriate EPA region, or authorized state or tribe, and allows regulators to work with that facility to mitigate or eliminate such risks or threats.
       
    • Normal operations and maintenance of public water systems and required sampling of vital drinking water supplies.
       
  • Regulated parties must document the basis for any claim that the pandemic prevented them from conducting that routine monitoring and reporting and present it to EPA upon request. EPA states that it is using this approach to allow EPA to prioritize its resources and respond to acute risks and imminent threats, rather than making up-front case-by-case determinations regarding routine monitoring and reporting requirements.

EPA notes that it expects regulated facilities to comply with regulatory requirements, where reasonably practicable, and to return to compliance as quickly as possible, once the COVID-19 threat is over. EPA states that it plans to lift the measures of the Temporary Policy as soon as normal operations can resume, which may occur sooner in some locations than others.