Democrats decry 'pandemic of pollution' under Trump's EPA

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Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaks during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee oversight hearing to examine the Environmental Protection Agency, Wednesday, May 20, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – Democrats on Wednesday blasted the Trump administration's moves to roll back environmental regulations during the coronavirus crisis, with one senator saying a "pandemic of pollution'' has been released.

The Environmental Protection Agency has weakened regulations dealing with fuel efficiency and mercury emissions and has waived enforcement on a range of public health and environmental mandates, saying industries could have trouble complying with them during the coronavirus pandemic. The rollbacks are among dozens of actions by the EPA to ease requirements on industry to monitor, report and reduce toxic pollutants, heavy metals and climate-damaging fossil fuel emissions.

Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the EPA remains “open for business" and "at work meeting our mission of protecting human health and the environment.''

Wheeler told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the EPA has approved hundreds of virus-killing disinfectants in recent weeks — more than 400 now, compared with 60 on March 5.

Wheeler cited a series of actions the agency has taken, including a revised rule that lifts protections for some of the millions of miles of streams, creeks and wetlands in the United States. The long-sought rule change to the Clean Water Act provides much needed regulatory certainty and predictability for American farmers, landowners and businesses, Wheeler said.

Similarly, he defended new rules that relax fuel efficiency standards imposed by the Obama administration and roll back President Barack Obama's signature environmental achievement, a plan to curb climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The EPA issued 18 deregulatory actions last year and is developing 45 more now, saving businesses billions of dollars in regulatory costs, Wheeler said. The actions do not come at the cost of enforcing environmental laws, he added, but are aimed at "modernizing decades-old regulations and bring them up to date.''

Democrats scoffed at that claim.