Activists Say Coronavirus Is An Opportunity To Reshape Environmental Policy

April 23, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem

It’s a big year for the planet.

April 22, 2020, marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a celebration of the environmental movement that is honored around the world.

But many are celebrating Earth Day indoors this year. The coronavirus has confined millions of people to their homes as it continues to spread. 

The silver lining is that the pandemic has had some positive — though unintended — effects on the environment. 

With millions of cars off the road and tens of thousands of flights cancelled, air quality has dramatically improved in America since the outbreak started, according to satellite data.

In addition, wildlife has crept back into many urban areas. Coyotes have been spotted wandering around empty downtowns in major cities from San Francisco to Chicago.

Even some endangered species have gotten a boost. Baby sea turtles in Florida have been thriving due to fewer people crowding the state’s beaches.

Advocates say the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to tackle pressing environmental issues, from traditional air pollution to climate change. A recent study from Harvard University determined that COVID-19 patients who have been exposed to higher amounts of air pollution are more likely to die from the disease.

“We have the chance to create jobs and rebuild a better, cleaner and healthier economy,” said Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp in a statement on Wednesday. “Now is the time to commit to cleaning up the air pollution that causes conditions like heart and lung disease and increased asthma attacks, all of which put people at higher risk for severe illness from the coronavirus—and address inequities that have hurt so many communities.”

But federal environmental authorities have taken a different approach during the crisis.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a broad relaxing of laws related to air, water, and hazardous waste pollution. In an order issued on March 23, the agency said it would temporarily stop fining companies that violate certain environmental reporting requirements to ease “potential worker shortages” during the pandemic.

The move was widely criticized by activists and members of Congress alike.

On Tuesday, several members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the EPA urging the agency to amend its temporary order to relax pollution requirements.

“We remain concerned that this guidance, as written, fails to achieve EPA’s stated objectives while unnecessarily undermining ongoing compliance with environmental laws,” said the letter, which was co-written by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone. “EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment requires the agency to implement and enforce our nation’s health and environmental laws.”

The letter asks the EPA to specify an end date for the temporary order and demands that the agency justify its decision to relax environmental rules during the coronavirus crisis.

Under President Donald Trump, the EPA has repealed and weakened dozens of environmental regulations, including many rules established by the Clean Air Act.

Research shows that air quality has significantly declined in the U.S. over the last few years. A recent report by the American Lung Association found that 150 million Americans –– nearly half the U.S. population –– lived in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone or particulate pollution between 2016 and 2018. 

Still, Trump touted U.S. environmentalism in a speech delivered at the White House on Wednesday. “On this Earth Day, we celebrate that America leads the world in environmental stewardship,” he said. “We continue to have among the cleanest air and the cleanest water anywhere on the planet earth,” he added.

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