Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, pressed EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler about the health effects related to air pollution after the EPA rolled back clean air protections amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Research has shown that communities of color in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens have some of the highest death rates from COVID-19 — these same communities also have the highest rates of hospitalizations for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases that are attributable to air pollution.
*Watch EPW Committee Hearing Video HERE*
SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: New York has been among the hardest hit of all states in the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the most current official counts, at least 22,843 New Yorkers have lost their lives. Some of the highest death rates have occurred in low-income communities of color in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. These same communities also have the highest rates of hospitalizations for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases that are attributable to particulate matter, ozone and other air pollutants in New York.
Preliminary studies are showing a higher rate of mortality from COVID- 19 among people with chronic diseases like inflammatory lung disease and coronary heart disease, which are linked to long-term exposure to poor air quality. These communities are often downwind from power plants and industrial sources of emissions, or experience high levels of emissions from transportation, including heavy-duty trucks and buses.
It’s not hard to connect the dots, and while COVID-19 is not only affecting the poorest communities in New York, it should be clear to anyone who’s paying attention that what we are seeing is much more than a mere coincidence. This should be a major wake-up call – particularly for those of us who have a responsibility to set and enforce policies to protect public health.
This is why I am deeply, deeply dismayed that in the midst of this unprecedented public health crisis, the EPA has chosen to relax its enforcement role and further weaken clean air protections. The State of New York filed a complaint just last week objecting to EPA’s broad non-enforcement policy during the COVID-19 national emergency.
So my question is, what are the expected public health outcomes, particularly outcomes related to air pollution, on populations with higher vulnerability to COVID-19, of your non-enforcement policy?
EPA ADMINISTRATOR ANDREW WHEELER: First of all Senator, we do not have a non-enforcement policy, that is a fallacy. Your Attorney General made a lot of legal mistakes in their announcement last week. We do not have a non-enforcement policy. As I was just explaining to Senator Duckworth, we have opened 52 criminal enforcement cases since March 16th. We’ve charged ten defendants. We’ve concluded 122 civil enforcement activities since March 16th. We’ve initiated another 115. So, we are very active on the enforcement side, and I am very proud of our enforcement personnel across the country who are still enforcing all of our environmental statutes.
You make a very good point on the heavy duty truck emissions, which is why we are moving forward on heavy duty diesel truck emissions regulations which is not required under statute. And it is not required under any court order, but it’s very important because, by 2025 it will be the largest source of NOx emissions from global sources, and it does have a disproportionate impact, particularly on inner-cities. And, we believe it’s very important to move forward on new regulations to reduce NOx emissions from the heavy duty diesel trucks. So we are moving forward on that, and that will help in particular New York.
And I also just want to point out, we’ve been working very closely with the New York City Transit Authority on long lasting antimicrobial coating research. The Transit Authority has actually praised the work, and this is not the work that I have done or my political people, but our career scientists at the Agency that are working hand-in-hand with your transit authority to try to ensure that we have in place antimicrobial coatings on the transit system in New York to protect the New York residents as the city begins to reopen. We are working hard on that to see what we can develop. It’s probably going to be more long term, or medium term research, but we want to make sure that the people who are dependent upon mass transit in your city and other cities… I want to applaud the New York Transit Authority, because they are working hand-in-hand with us for this important research that we are doing in New York to be used in other cities and communities around the country.
GILLIBRAND: Well, specifically last year, the EPA denied New York’s petition under Section 126 of the Clean Air Act for ground level ozone emitted by polluters in states that are upwind from New York. New York has petitioned the EPA to require those sources to reduce the emissions that are traveling across state lines, resulting in adverse health impacts for New Yorkers. Given the extraordinary circumstances now, and the fact that continued exposure to ground-level ozone will undoubtedly put more New Yorkers at risk, will the EPA drop its opposition to New York’s Section 126 petition?
WHEELER: Well we are working, we have a number of different decisions from the courts over the last six months or so. I believe there are three decisions that we are working to figure out how to move forward on. Of course, on the 126 it doesn’t just impact New York, but it also impacts the other states as well. And we have pushback from those states. So we are working, but at the same time we are working on the 126 petitions. And as Senator Carper likes to refer to as the Good Neighbor Policies, we are working to make sure that all communities, wherever they are located, including New York have the tools to try to reach attainment on their own. Which is why we have worked with 38 communities around the country to re-designate them after they have met their air quality standards as attainment. And we will continue to work with all the New York Communities to try to make sure that they all have healthy air regardless of where those communities are.
You also mentioned environmental justice I believe. We put out a round of environmental justice grants just a couple weeks ago to help environmental justice communities address the COVID-19. So, we are working aggressively on that as well.