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Federal environmental cutbacks concern watchdogs; Atlanta says consent decree on track

By David Pendered

The federal cutbacks in environmental standards enacted during the coronavirus outbreak have drawn sharp rebuke from metro Atlanta watchdogs. The rollbacks include car fuel efficiency and monitoring of environmental enforcement actions.

South River

The South River receives wastewater from Atlanta and the city’s improvements to the South River Water Reclamation Center include sand filters and other upgrades to manage phosphorous levels and other pollutants. Credit: Kelly Jordan

As Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia, wrote in a Friday evening email:

  • “As the unprecedented public health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus worsens, the Trump administration is nevertheless weakening clean car standards that protect our climate, our health and the future of our children and grandchildren.”

Gayer was addressing the Trump administration’s announcement Tuesday of the reduction in the fuel efficiency of vehicles. This rollback was expected as part of the administration’s cutback of Obama-era environmental standards.

A rollback that wasn’t expected was the March 26 statement from the administration. It announced that enforcement of environmental monitoring of clean water and clean air standards was being waived during the coroavirus. No termination date for the waiver was included in the order.

As Kevin Jeselnik, general counsel of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said of these rollbacks Tuesday:

  • “We totally expect to see some case by case exceptions to the rule. We don’t think there should be draconian response to missing some compliance reporting due to this pandemic.”

Atlanta’s compliance with maintaining and monitoring the quality of wastewater released into the Chattahoochee River is a key concern. Atlanta is under strict reporting provisions as a result of a federal consent decree for past violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

consent decree, coronoavirus

Employees identified as Benjamin and Adrian continued electrical work Friday at Atlanta’s Intrenchment Creek Water Reclamation Center’s effluent pump station, according to a tweet from Kishia Powell, commissioner of the city’s Department of Watershed Management.

The city expects to encounter no problems in fulfilling its responsibilities, as set forth in a federal consent decree, during the virus situation, a spokesperson said in a Thursday email:

  • “At this time, the Department of Watershed Management remains on track to meet required milestones for construction projects under the consent decree program. The Department’s level of preparedness and ability to activate our Continuity of Operations Plan during the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed progress to continue on critical infrastructure projects and mission essential functions.”

The March 26 announcement from the federal Environmental Protection Agency says its purpose is to protect the health of everyone involved in monitoring discharges that are required to be monitored. This is the beginning of the memorandum on, COVID-19 Implications for EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program:

  • “As all of us at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adjust to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, we are first and foremost mindful of the health and safety of the public, as well as our staff, and those of Federal Agencies, State and Local Governments, Tribes, Regulated Entities, Contractors, and Non-governmental Organizations. The agency must take these important considerations into account as we all continue our work to protect human health and the environment. Accordingly, we are announcing the following temporary policy regarding EPA enforcement of environmental legal obligations during this time.”

Jeselnik said the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper understand that these are what he called, “unprecedented times.” However, that doesn’t give the federal government a blank check to waive environmental enforcement standards, he said. Especially given the administration’s history on environmental affairs.

  • “We are not in favor of the EPA following its track record of relaxing standards over the past several years,” Jeselnik said. “We’re aware there has to be exceptions and leniency as this plays out. But we’re going to continue doing our mission.”

Gayer wrote in her email Tuesday that the rollback in fuel efficiency standards is to be resolved in court:

  • “The administration’s action on this issue is an abandonment of science, reason and responsibility. It’s also unlawful, which is why we’re considering legal action just like the two lawsuits that we’ve already joined challenging part one of the rollback in court. When the coronavirus crisis subsides, the climate crisis will still be with us and will continue to accelerate every day that we postpone proactive measures. The administration should focus its energy on protecting the health and well-being of Americans.”



David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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