On March 26, 2020, as stay-at-home orders proliferated across the United States, the EPA Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance issued a memorandum announcing a temporary policy for the agency's enforcement of "environmental legal obligations" during the pandemic. The memo announced that, in light of "potential worker shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the travel and social distancing restrictions" imposed by governments, corporations and recommended by the CDC, the EPA would be relaxing environmental compliance obligations across all media.
Specifically, the memo stated that the agency would exercise "enforcement discretion" and cease enforcing routine compliance monitoring and reporting requirements placed on regulated entities (such as power plants and other industrial facilities) and settlement agreement and consent decree reporting obligations and milestones, where compliance "is not reasonably practicable" for those entities. In order to qualify for enforcement discretion, those entities have to (a) identify the specific nature and dates of noncompliance, (b) identify how COVID-19 caused the noncompliance, (c) return to compliance as soon as possible, and (d) document all this information.
The decision was met with a great deal of concern in the environmental community, which viewed it as a blank check to polluters to evade enforcement obligations. And it is notable that, unlike other regulations and policy announcements being made by other Executive Branch agencies, EPA's announcement is not specifically time limited. (Rather, it refers to the policy as "temporary" and states that legal obligations will be relaxed "during this time.") However, as national news sources have reported, utilities and other entities are facing very real constraints in keeping facilities running, as they require specialized technicians with specific certifications and training to maintain their facilities and keep them in compliance, and have very few if any backup staff in their employ.