Over 50 organization’s call on New York Attorney General to Sue Trump Administration Over Dangerous Suspension of Environmental Enforcement

On March 26th, the USEPA released a policy that set new guidelines for companies to monitor themselves for an undetermined period of time during the outbreak. The memo goes on to state the EPA will not issue fines for violations of certain air, water and hazardous-waste-reporting requirements. The policy cites the decision as a response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.  EPA’s decision prompted an immediate rebuke from former agency officials and environmentalists, many of whom characterized it as a waiver of the nation’s environmental rules.

Today, over 50 environmental, labor, and community organizations from across the state of New York responded in a letter addressed to New York Attorney General Letitia James.

The letter states “We the undersigned, urge you to sue the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in response to the recent memo, COVID-19 Implications for EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program, which suspends the enforcement of foundational environmental protection laws.  In issuing this policy, which suspends the enforcement of these laws, the EPA is breaching its public duty and puts New Yorkers public health at risk.”

Over the past 2 years, Attorney General James has taken hundreds of legal actions against the Trump Administration to protect the health, safety and rights of New Yorkers. James’s office sued the Trump administration over 20 times in 2019 to defend residents against dangerous policies. She was the lead plaintiff on 15 of those cases, covering everything from emission standards to healthy school lunches. For example, on April 14th NYSAG James sued the US Department of Labor over unlawful regulations restricting paid sick leave and exposing workers, their families, and their communities to unnecessary spread of COVID-19. 

Yesterday, the NYSAG’s office sent a letter to the Trump Administration denouncing the policy. However given the seriousness of the policy, and it’s dangerous impact on New Yorkers, advocates are urging for a stronger and more robust legal response. 

Suspending federal laws that are put in place to protect public health will put more New Yorker’s lives at risk. A recent study of Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found Coronavirus patients in areas that had high levels of air pollution before the pandemic are more likely to die from the infection than patients in cleaner parts of the country. New Yorkers currently make up 33% of COVID-19 cases and 44% of COVID-19 deaths in the United States. Further emissions from polluters in communities will exacerbate an already untenable public health problem in neighborhoods throughout the state.

Under this order, more people will be harmed. There are over 350 regulated facilities in Western New York alone.  There are thousands of people who live next to large polluters. To make our people ward off COVID-19 while burdening their bodies with more pollution is shameful, horrific, and further demonstrates that the Trump Administration would rather see communities of color and poor and working class people die, than hurt the pocketbooks of his friends.” said Rebecca Newberry, Executive Director of Clean Air Coalition in Buffalo.

Rochester is a predominantly of-color and working class city in which residents have had their health and safety routinely jeopardized by corporations. Rochester Gas & Electric charges residents extortionate rates to guarantee its shareholders a 9% return on investment. Meanwhile, the utility dangerously neglects maintenance of gas pipes and electrical lines critical to public safety. We have brownfields that forgo the safest clean-up procedures so that developers can build luxury apartments for maximum profit while putting residents at risk of poisoning. We also share Lake Ontario with a nuclear power plant, so our city’s safety requires careful management of nuclear waste. Our community cannot afford less accountability for corporations. We cannot afford the EPA further endangering livelihoods at a time when our communities are already struggling through a pandemic. It is the EPA’s duty to protect public health over corporate profits, and we must hold the agency accountable for renouncing that duty.” said Mohini Sharma, Lead Organizer at Metro Justice in Rochester.

In order to operate a large industrial facility, companies must acquire permits to pollute. The limits on how much pollution a company is allowed to put into the air, water and soil, how often a company reports what they pollute, and how they measure the level of toxins are all set by the federal government. Companies self report to the enforcement agencies, and if emitting above the limit or if testing protocol isn’t consistent with regulation, or if there is a spill or accidental air release, they can be found in violation of the law, forced to make changes and/or pay fines. Reporting allows for the federal and state government, as well as community groups, to take swift action when necessary.

From PCBs in the Hudson River, to the poisoning of Newburgh’s water, Hudson Valley residents have been under constant attack from polluters. Using a public health crisis to justify setting the stage for more public health crises is ridiculous. We need environmental enforcement to keep us safe. And we need our AG to once again stand up to Trump and defend New Yorkers.” Jonathan Bix, Executive Director of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson

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