DEQ Sets Up Plan If Operators Can't Meet Requirements Due To COVID-19

Apr 15, 2020

Credit Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has released temporary guidance outlining how certain entities like wastewater treatment plants or oil and gas operations should respond if COVID-19 makes regulatory requirements unfeasible.

Keith Guille, DEQ public information officer, said that could happen for a variety of reasons.

"Certain concerns can be raised in the sense of inspections, providing data to us, because... there might not be a person at a lab that's available to take those samples and to submit those to us," he said, adding it's possible someone is out sick as well.

The guidance outlines how it expects to handle interruptions within five categories, including missed routine compliance reporting or an upcoming inspection.

Entities are still expected to make every effort to comply and act responsibly, according to the DEQ. But guidelines give the agency some flexibility in handling violations or missed deadlines. That discretion comes into play when COVID-19 is the direct cause, assuming there's supporting documentation.

For example, the temporary guidance says the department won't generally seek penalties if deadlines are missed within a handful of routine monitoring including lab analysis, sampling or certification obligations.

The DEQ also generally won't expect facilities to catch up on missed monitoring or reporting if less than three months has passed since the requirement. Otherwise, the operation should conduct late monitoring and submit late reports.

There are also a list of alternatives to in-person inspections to ensure an operation is staying compliant with its permit. That could include an inspection based on aerial imagery like a flight or a drone. There could also be on-site social distancing or just digital documents.

"This is providing common sense during an unprecedented time," he said. "We'll be working with those entities to ensure they can to stay in compliance and if there's an issue we'll work to bring them back into compliance."

Guille said the guidance is not a license to pollute. If any operation does fall out of compliance in something like air emissions, it's expected to record the difference, report back to DEQ, and give its plan to return to compliance.

Shannon Anderson, staff attorney with the landowners' group Powder River Basin Resource Council, said mines, wells and power plants should all be following legal requirements as long as they're in operation. 

"COVID-19 is not an excuse for non-compliance of public health and safety regulations, and DEQ cannot waive compliance through a guidance document that did not go through public comment requirements," she said.

The group also raised concerns about the lack of an end-date to the temporary guidance. Guille said that will depend on Gov. Mark Gordon's recommendations and public health orders. The Governor also decided not to extend public comment periods on projects in the works.

UPDATE 4/15/20: A collection of business, agricultural, and county groups released a statement saying they are confident that members will continue to comply with all state and federal regulations to the best of their ability. 

"We are committed to compliance with existing legal and regulatory provisions and rely on the flexibilities offered by this guidance only to the extent necessary to keep intact the industries that support our communities, to ensure our local water and wastewater facilities can operate, and so that the people of Wyoming can continue to work," read the statement. 

It continued the temporary changes don't absolve industries from operating safely, but serve as a recognition of the unprecedented times. Seven organizations underwote the statement include the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, Petroleum Assocation of Wyoming, and Wyoming Stockgrowers Association.

The temporary guidance will apply retroactively from March 13.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.