Tuesday, August 09, 2005


A sure sign of falling into the depths of career obscurity occurs when your job title starts with an acronym. NEPA Coordinator? Never would I have thought that I’d be NEPA geek 10 or 15 years ago. First, I’ll provide a little NEPA background, then briefly how I apply it, and I’ll conclude with a brief discussion on a couple common misconceptions about NEPA.


NEPA is short for the National Environmental Policy Act, which was written by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington State and voted in overwhelmingly by Congress during the Nixon administration. This landmark law–the first of its kind in the entire world--would not even warrant a committee discussion today, and indeed it is currently undergoing intense scrutiny by a Congress and Administration that is overtly disdainful toward many environmental policies

The strength of NEPA lies in its flexibility, it’s foresight in understanding that humans are part of the environment and as stewards we are responsible for ensuring environmental sustainability. NEPA’s spirit is written in Section 101 (http://www.eh.doe.gov/nepa/policy/4331.htm#4331):

The Congress, recognizing the profound impact of man's activity on the interrelations of all components of the natural environment,...declares that it is the continuing policy of the Federal Government, in cooperation with State and local governments, and other concerned public and private organizations...to use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance, in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.

The last part is key: sustainabilty of our environment and resources. No doubt NEPA was a revolutionary law, but it is not radical as some would have you believe.

A NEPA Geek At Work

At work, I rarely refer to the high falutin’ rhetoric, but really common sense philosophy, of Section 101, but it does provide the basis for Section 102, the mechanics. Like all federal agencies, any action that affects the environment must be considered, and documented, under NEPA. I am the triage on the front lines. A paperer-pushing Hawkeye Peirce, I review a myriad of proposed actions and provide the initial analysis, and suggest the appropriate level of NEPA. Although I don’t patch up the environment like Peirce patched bodies, I do help decide what type of analyses and documentation and analyses are needed. Often I do the analyses, or find the right people to analyze environmental impact.

If the action is relatively inconsequential, say a new ditch or building facade, all I need to do is sign a piece of paper. But if these projects might result in an environmental impact (say the ditch could affect a small wetland, or the refurbishing would result in exposure to lead or asbestos), I will prepare a “record of environmental consideration,” usually a one to three page memo that describes the issues and actions needed to alleviate environmental impacts. Sometimes agencies want to do something like drain a wetland, or build a complex of structures. These more complicated actions might require an environmental assessment (EA). An EA might take several months and cost taxpayers between $10,000 to $50,000 (usually, although some can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars). If the project is large scale–or if it could affect an import resource such as endangered species, national historic district, or way of life in a community, an environmental impact statement (EIS) is needed. EIS’s can be costly (usually from $1 million to more than $10 million), and can take a considerable amount of time (one to three or four years).

Challenges to NEPA and Common Misconceptions

Although EIS’s are expensive, they are relatively uncommon. Over the past 10 years only about 500 EIS’s are published each year, which is about ten times less frequent than a generation ago. Nevertheless, NEPA is controversial and under attack by the less than progressive sect of our government, the right wing of the Republican Party. Their primary target is the EIS, its cost, and its vulnerability to “frivolous” lawsuits by “radical” environmental groups. Let us further deconstruct myths associate with NEPA and environmental impact statements.

We frequently hear that EIS’s impede progress, they cost too much, and they are nothing but a mountain of paperwork. Actually, when done right, an EIS is a valuable planning tool that provides society the necessary analyses to make an informed decision. EIS’s evaluate a range of alternative actions–and sometimes the alternative that is not the most environmentally friendly is the one that is ultimately selected. But the value is that we, as a society, know what we’re getting into. Nor is the cost overwhelming. I have been directly involved with two EIS’s, and the production of the documents has added between only 1 or 2 percent of the expense. Engineering design alone can cost as much as five to ten percent.

We hear about EIS’s in the media fairly regularly, but the newspapers, radio, and TV usually don’t do a good job of explaining the purpose of the process. The emphasis is on process. Most lawsuits are actually focused on whether the process was followed correctly. That is, if the guidelines of Section 102, further defined by subsequent court cases, are followed correctly, the agency involved can usually proceed with their desired action. They get into trouble when they do not follow the procedures correctly, or do not address concerns from the public or other agencies.

Finally, critics are calling for a “streamlining” of the NEPA process. However, they fail to acknowledge that the streamlining is already built in with the use of categorical exclusions or environmental assessments. An EIS is only required for major projects that may have a significant environmental impact.

NEPA is not perfect, but the statute is robust and flexible. It does not hold up progress. In fact when done correctly, NEPA helps us make better design decisions, where the environmental impact is integrated into the planning process. The law is only 35 years old, and it should be as American as apple pie and the flag.


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