May 20 (UPI) -- Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler testified to Congress on Wednesday about the regulations his agency has lifted in recent weeks to give companies greater freedoms during the coronavirus pandemic.
He touted the agency's approval of hundreds of disinfectants since early March and a change to the Clean Water Act that lifts protections for streams and wetlands. Wheeler said the latter benefits American farmers and businesses currently experiencing economic hardship because of the pandemic.
He made the comments during an EPA oversight hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., praised the EPA's "good work" protecting the country's natural resources and providing the public with information about safe cleaning products during the COVID-19 crisis.
"In addition to its work on the virus, the agency has pursued policies to protect the environment, while supporting the economy," he said in his opening remarks.
"EPA has replaced punishing regulations that harmed the coal industry, farmers and ranchers, and many small businesses in my home state of Wyoming and across the country."
Wheeler's appearance before the committee came one day after President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to review hundreds of regulations that have been suspended in response to the pandemic. He wants his administration to make those suspensions permanent where possible.
"With millions of Americans forced out of work by the virus, it's more important than ever to remove burdens that destroy American jobs," Trump said.
Wheeler said the EPA lifted 18 regulations last year and is working on lifting another 45.
Democrats on the Senate committee criticized the EPA for lifting environmental protections they say could exacerbate the effects of COVID-19.
"We are in the middle of a health crisis attacking people's lungs," Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said. "The EPA is supposed to be an air quality fire department. Instead, you're throwing gasoline on a burning building, knowing that breathing bad air can make the impacts of coronavirus worse."
"Preliminary studies are showing a higher rate of mortality from COVID-19 among people with chronic diseases that are linked to long-term exposure to poor air quality," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., added. "It's not hard to connect the dots ... this should be a major wake-up call."