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What EPA enforcement announcement means for businesses, region’s water ways
12062017 SPILL
Flat Creek is shown at Dorsey Road in this file photo. - photo by Scott Rogers

Federal enforcement of environmental laws has been pulled back in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week it was holding off enforcement of public health and environmental regulations because compliance during the health crisis could be difficult for industries.

“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement.

“This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment."

EPA expects regulated facilities “to comply with regulatory requirements, where reasonably practicable, and to return to compliance as quickly as possible,” according to an EPA press release.

Facilities also need to “document decisions made to prevent or mitigate noncompliance and demonstrate how the noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Also, “this policy does not provide leniency for intentional criminal violations of law.”

“We are all making a lot of sacrifices during this crisis, but we should not have to sacrifice clean water and clean air by lifting important environmental protections,” said Jason Ulseth, who heads Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

“What I’m concerned about is some of these industries will see headlines that EPA is not going to enforce Clean Water laws and feel like they have free rein to pollute and not be proactive in protecting the environment.”

Hall County waterways, particularly Flat Creek, which flows past industries from Gainesville to Lake Lanier, have struggled with water quality in the past. Runoff from rapid development and farm lands also have been a concern.

According to data reported in February by Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Lake Lanier contained more algae in 2019 than in the previous 20 years, 

“Our region’s prosperity depends on a healthy Lake Lanier,” Dale Caldwell, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s headwaters director, said at the time. “The high algae levels that we saw in 2019 indicate that we need to do a better job of controlling the amount of nutrients flowing into the lake.”

Ulseth said that lack of enforcement by EPA “doesn’t relieve those regulated industries from complying with the Clean Water Act,” he said. “Those requirements are still in place … and a lot of the enforcement does take place on the state level.”

The EPA’s action doesn’t take away the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s authority “to enforce these regulations,” Ulseth added.

Jennifer Flowers, executive director of the Lake Lanier Association, also noted that the EPA does not change monitoring requirements of permits issued by EPD.

EPA’s “memo does not change compliance obligations for regulated entities,” EPD said in a statement. “It does, however, provide general conditions upon which enforcement discretion will be considered for violations of certain monitoring, testing, reporting or in-person training requirements.

“For compliance obligations outside these instances, EPD will continue to evaluate appropriate enforcement action after considering potential harm to human health and the environment, mitigating or equitable circumstances, and the overriding goal of returning a facility to compliance as quickly as possible.”

“From reading the EPA's COVID-19 policy, it does not relax penalties for criminal violations or spills due to negligence,” Flowers said. “The policy mainly appears to be focused on relaxing certain EPA monitoring and testing requirements.”

And “reducing the burden on monitoring requirements is understandable in certain circumstances where COVID-19 can be pointed to as the cause,” she said. “It takes many employees to collect samples and analyze them in a lab. If a lab is shut down for a COVID-19 outbreak there might not be another available lab to run the samples.”

Linda MacGregor, director of City of Gainesville Water Resources, said, “This guidance from EPA confirms actions that the City of Gainesville Department of Water Resources already has underway.”

“The continued operation of drinking water systems is the highest priority,” she said. “We have instituted a modified operations strategy to protect our employees and our ability to deliver essential services. Our essential services include the water system and our ability to treat wastewater.”

Ulseth also said Chattahoochee Riverkeeper staff “are all still working full-time from our homes and continue to keep close watch over the Chattahoochee River system.”

Same for the Lake Lanier Association.

“Members are still out on the lake everyday keeping an eye out for problems and will be the first to raise a red flag if there are any water quality issues,” Flowers said.