Using pandemic to avoid regulations

Using pandemic to avoid regulations

The world has come to a standstill as countries try to protect their citizens from the COVID-19 virus spreading across the globe. People have been asked to adhere to social distancing guidelines, and only essential businesses are allowed to remain open to prevent further spread of this very contagious virus.

While the world is preoccupied with this crisis, polluting industries have used this as an excuse to increase their assault on our environment. Some government agencies charged with assuring the safety of our air and water have all but abdicated their responsibilities.

As usual the oil and gas industry has been quick to claim their industry is an “essential” one. Although the maintenance of existing energy supplies is critical, new pipeline construction is not. Yet many pipelines including the Mariner East II in Pennsylvania, the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) in West Virginia and Virginia, and the Keystone XL Pipeline in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska all continue to be constructed.

The Keystone XL Pipeline could carry 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta through Nebraska to the Gulf Coast in Texas. Farmers, indigenous communities and ranchers in the USA are resisting its construction.

Oil Change International’s Collin Rees spoke out against the recent $1.1 billion investment from Alberta, Canada’s government to help construct the XL tar sands pipeline. “We need billions of dollars invested directly in vulnerable communities dying from COVID-19, not spent propping up massive oil companies and unneeded projects that would trample indigenous rights and exacerbate the climate crisis.”

In the midst of a pandemic where people are being asked to avoid family funerals and are separated from their loved ones, hundreds of out-of-state construction workers will move into rural communities in these regions.

This is especially disturbing in isolated areas that lack hospitals and medical resources such as indigenous communities and isolated regions in West Virginia.

Citizens living in communities close to the Shell Plastic Cracker Plant in Monaca, Pennsylvania have asked Governor Wolf to pause its construction due to the possible spreading of the COVID-19 virus. They cited a range of hazards including crowded busses and a lack of hand sanitizer in portable bathrooms. The site has seen over 7,000 construction workers employed on the 40-acre tract of land.

Communities in and around these pipelines also are worried about the spread of the virus from “man-camps.” Out-of-state workers use these camps to set up temporary housing. The leader of the Yankton Sioux tribe likened the influx of nonlocal workers to the distribution of infected smallpox blankets.

The continued construction of pipelines and other oil and gas projects during a time of a pandemic shows a total disregard for the health and safety of local communities and also for pipeline workers and their families.

On March 26 the EPA announced a “temporary policy on environmental enforcement” would occur during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the results of this policy is “no penalties will be given to entities who fail to comply with routine monitoring and reporting.” This also includes no reporting of greenhouse gas emissions and the weakening of transportation sector emission requirements.

As we struggle with a disease that specifically affects the lungs, the EPA announced it will weaken 2012 auto pollution standards. This will make the U.S. one of the worst countries when it comes to fuel efficiency.

According to a Mother Jones article, the reversal means “an increase of 185,000 premature deaths, 250,000 more asthma attacks, 350,000 other respiratory problems and an increase of $190 billion in health costs between now and 2050.”

In a recent article in The Hill, environmentalists said this policy is a “license to pollute.” Some industries that will greatly benefit from the lack of monitoring and reporting include chemical plants, oil and gas, power plants, steel manufacturers, and others who could discharge more pollutants into the air and waterways of our nation.

Last week I attended a webinar conducted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The webinar covered new proposed regulations that would transfer disposal requirements for what the NRC called “very low-level radioactive wastes” from licensed radioactive disposal sites to any private or public landfill receiving an exemption.

After a brief PowerPoint presentation, the webinar was open for questions. There were people present from all over the country and from various environmental and health organizations. No one was happy about this proposed rule change.

The wastes that could fall under this VLLRW classification range from contaminated mops and clothing from nuclear power plants to irradiated pipes and reactor components. A truckload of wastes could meet the amount considered to be very low-level radioactive wastes by averaging all the radiation in the load.

The ability to average together both high- and low-level radioactive wastes occurs with “irregularly contaminated” fracking wastes. These wastes can have both high amounts of Radium from technically enhanced naturally occurring radiation from produced waters, as well as sludge from drill cuttings.

According to one of the webinar participants, an attorney from Ohio, ”The NRC will grant a one-time license, calling it an ‘exemption’ for a local landfill, with no articulated guidelines for what the dumping pit must be lined with, whether there are any well monitors set up, no firm testing or other monitoring protocol, no indication whether leachate samples should be tested and no means of determining whether there is offsite leakage.”

Ohio currently has 38 private or municipally owned landfills, and any of these could apply for an NRC exemption. Nuclear power plants all over our country are aging out and looking for places to take their wastes. These landfills would provide a cheap way around the current expensive alternatives (see 10 CFR 20.2002).

Most people familiar with landfills can tell you they will leak. I have seen butter break down a landfill liner in a matter of weeks in a lab setting. Counting on these landfills to protect our surface and groundwater from irreparable harm is naïve at best.

The Ohio attorney said, “Improperly disposed of industrial chemicals leak into area water, and now the NRC wants radioisotopes with half-lives extending out to tens if not hundreds of thousands of years to be securely confined in facilities that are nowhere near being up to that mission.”

Will Ohioans know if their local landfill is accepting these wastes and if workers are trained in handling these wastes? What will communities do if underground water sources become contaminated?

We have until April 20 to submit comments to the NRC at

People also can contact local officials who deal with solid wastes and let them know we do not want our landfills to become cheap radioactive dumping sites for the nuclear industry.

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