One of America’s primary environmental and community health laws is under attack.
For half a century, the National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, has effectively protected air, water, forests, and the health and vitality of countless communities. But sweeping changes proposed by the Trump administration would eviscerate the law’s implementation by undermining environmental protections, public health, and citizen input on local projects.
A public comment period about the proposed changes is open through March 10, 2020.
NEPA was signed by Republican President Richard Nixon 50 years ago, at a time of startling environmental degradation. New York City suffered fatal smog episodes, California’s scenic beaches were fouled by oil, and Midwest rivers burst into flames from chemical pollution. “Freeway revolts” erupted as interstate highway construction sliced through communities and landscapes.
When Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson described these conditions in February 1969, while introducing NEPA to Congress, he said lax federal policy allowed “haphazard urban growth, the loss of open spaces…deforestation, faltering transportation systems, a proliferation of pesticides and chemicals” and other problems harmful to the public interest.
Urged by a concerned public, Jackson and other legislators negotiated the nation’s first comprehensive environmental policy. NEPA passed the Senate unanimously and faced only 15 opposing votes in the House. At its 1970 signing, President Nixon called it an opportunity to reclaim the nation’s environmental health. Since then more than 100 nations have emulated the law.
NEPA greatly improved government transparency and accountability. It required federal agencies to first review environmental and human impacts before beginning projects needing government funds, permits or other support. The process, in the form of an environmental impact statement for the largest projects, applied to highways, airports, pipelines and many actions affecting public lands. For the first time officials had to analyze a range of project alternatives and ensure community input through public hearings and comment periods.
NEPA’s results are written across today’s landscape. Highway upgrades, wildfire mitigations, power plant expansions, and proposals for mining and grazing on public lands — among thousands of other projects — have moved forward, but often with public health and environmental mitigations gained through NEPA reviews.
And the law has never been more relevant. In my home state of Alaska, NEPA is enmeshed in several high-profile public lands debates, including Trump administration efforts to increase old-growth logging on the Tongass National Forest, drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and pave the way for the massive Pebble Mine in the salmon-rich Bristol Bay region.
No doubt NEPA presents a bureaucratic hurdle for industry, as environmental reviews cost time and money. And few deny there’s room for improvement in implementing NEPA. But Trump’s proposal overwhelmingly tilts the NEPA process in favor of industry, while curtailing public participation. An extreme example in the new rules allows companies to conduct environmental reviews for their own projects, weakening the role of federal biologists and others trained to fairly consider the public’s interest.
Public participation would also be undermined by allowing officials to dismiss citizen comments lacking scientific references and other technical requirements. This puts lay people at a disadvantage. Here in Alaska, as in other parts of the country, it would leave no room for input from indigenous people and others raising cultural values or traditional ecological knowledge. This disservice to communities is also a lost opportunity, as citizen input can improve project design.
The new rules would also arbitrarily limit the timelines and number of pages for environmental reviews, forcing agencies to rush projects affecting drinking water, endangered species and other complex matters. And by shrinking the scope of reviews, the administration would allow industry and government to ignore issues tied to biodiversity and climate change, essential considerations for the welfare of today’s young people.
Trump claims the proposal benefits “new roads, bridges, tunnels, [and] highways,” aligning with an industry narrative that NEPA is somehow responsible for the nation’s aging infrastructure. But the comments ignore the proposal’s broader impact of gutting oversight on fossil fuel pipelines, fracking, offshore drilling and other projects deserving careful analysis. After losing dozens of court cases due to shoddy environmental reviews of such projects, the administration now seeks to hobble the law.
Today’s environmental concerns dwarf the conditions that in 1970 inspired NEPA. Plastics pollution, declining forest health, failing biodiversity and of course climate change are dire problems affecting all Americans, but young people, minorities and low-income communities are especially vulnerable. We need environmental and public health safeguards more than ever, not a return to the bad old days of a half-century ago.
The public can learn more about the NEPA changes and submit comments here. And we should continue to speak out about the changes after the public comment period ends. The Trump administration’s proposal is an attempt to silence our voice; we should make sure to tell them how we feel about that.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.