US Relaxation of Environmental Rules in the Wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic – The Implications for Canada and Mexico

Written by Joseph Castrilli, Counsel, Canadian Environmental Law Association

In a move that has implications for international arrangements with Canada regarding protection of the North American environment, the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States, citing the coronavirus pandemic as its justification, has announced that it will temporarily not seek penalties against companies that violate monitoring, reporting, and other obligations under US federal environmental laws. In a policy statement issued on March 26, 2020, the agency indicated that it will exercise “enforcement discretion…for noncompliance covered by this temporary policy and resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic” if the regulated community takes the steps set out in the policy.

Steps Under the Relaxation Policy

The steps under the policy require the regulated community to: (1) act responsibly to minimize effects and duration of any noncompliance; (2) identify the nature and dates of the noncompliance; (3) identify how COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance, the decisions and actions taken in response, including best efforts to comply and return to compliance; (4) return to compliance; and (5) document the information, actions, and conditions specified in steps 1-4.

Regulated Activities Covered by the Policy

The agency’s enforcement discretion under the policy covers: (1) routine compliance monitoring and reporting by regulated entities (the policy indicates that “EPA does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the EPA upon request”); (2) settlement agreement and consent decree reporting obligations and milestones (the policy adopts the same position as in point number (1), above, but notes that consent decrees are still subject to independent judicial oversight); and (3) facility operations (the policy indicates that it applies to facility operations impacted by COVID-19 that may create acute risk or imminent threat to human health or the environment, result in air emission control, wastewater, or waste treatment system or equipment failure that may result in exceedances of enforceable limits, cause hazardous waste generation transfer, or animal waste feeding operation compliance, delays, or other noncompliance, all of which are generally to be covered by steps 1-4, above, except for imminent threats which also will require EPA consultation with state or tribal governments).

How the Policy Has Been Viewed in the United States

As reported in the media, the relaxation of environmental measures has been both assailed (“an open license to pollute…and abject abdication of the EPA mission to protect our well being” – Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator in Obama administration) and defended (“a very straightforward and sensible guidance” – Grant Nakayama, EPA Office of Compliance in Bush administration) by legal, regulatory, and regulated communities in the United States. Others suggested that the issue was not so much the policy itself as how it will be implemented, particularly in the context of air pollution from industrial facilities located predominantly in low income communities where at-risk populations historically under stress from air pollutants that exacerbate asthma, breathing difficulty, and cardiovascular problems now also face respiratory threats posed by a virus that attacks the lungs.

Implications for Canada

Despite the policy’s direct impact in the United States, there are significant implications for Canada (and Mexico) as well. First, there are a myriad of cross-border environmental problems a policy such as this could exacerbate. Air emissions from the Ohio Valley have long had significant impacts in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. Superfund hazardous waste sites along the Canada – United States border, such as in the Niagara area, have long had significant implications for the integrity of the shared waters of the Great Lakes. Water pollution discharges from the state of Washington impact the Salish Sea, the estuary formed by inland waters with southern British Columbia that connect to the Pacific Ocean primarily through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Second, there are a variety of pacts between Canada and the United States that the policy could ride roughshod over:

• The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 (Article IV, section 2) that requires that neither country should cause water pollution in its waters which will cause injury to health or property in the other country and the companion Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 2012, which provides for a regional mechanism to achieve the Treaty’s goals in the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem;

• The Canada – United States Air Quality Agreement, signed in 1991, with the goal of reducing air emissions that cause acid rain, which was expanded in 2000 to reduce transboundary smog emissions; and

• The environmental side agreement under the North American Free Trade Agreement (as amended) commits Canada, Mexico, and the United States to ensuring that their laws and regulations provide for high levels of environmental protection and that they are effectively enforced through measures that include compliance monitoring and reporting (Articles 3 and 5).

Whether viewed as a waiver of monitoring and reporting requirements with respect to emissions or discharge limits or, more ominously, as a waiver of compliance with the limits themselves for the duration of the pandemic, this is not good news for the environment or public health in North America especially in the midst of a pandemic caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory system of its victims. It is also not clear whether Canada (or Mexico) were consulted by the EPA before this policy went into effect (it is retroactive to March 13, 2020). Coupled with the major de-regulation push the EPA has been engaged in over the past few years, the policy seems all of a piece with the worst impulses of those who want to de-construct the administrative state. We can do better than turn the clock back to the dark ages of environmental non-regulation. In the midst of a pandemic, stopping the spread of bad ideas would be a good place to start, including ensuring they are not imported to Canada.


About the Author

Joseph F. Castrilli is counsel to the Canadian Environmental Law Association in Toronto. He is a member of the Ontario and British Columbia Bars, is certified as a specialist in environmental law by the Law Society of Ontario, and has appeared before all levels of court on environmental matters, including the Supreme Court of Canada. He also has taught environmental law courses and seminars at Queen’s University, University of Toronto and Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.