The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) ensures that the federal government makes the best decision based on the best information while engaging and informing the public it serves.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is often characterized as an environmental impact law, and it is that – but it is much more than that. It is a law that has made informed decision-making about the environment a key component of every major federal action.
NEPA’s value is enormous yet simple: it ensures that those who manage federal projects make the best decisions based on the best information while involving and informing the public. With an emphasis on “smart from the start” federal decision making, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) our public health, economic livelihoods, culture and the environment. What’s more, it often provides the only forum for citizens to engage on major federal actions that affect their health, communities, and environment.
The NEPA process has saved money, time, lives, historical sites, endangered species and public lands while encouraging compromise and cultivating better projects with more public support. Thanks to NEPA, hundreds of millions of Americans now know the risks that government projects and practices pose to their health, voice, and environment.
NEPA Protects Public Health
Everyone has the right to live, work, learn and play in healthy communities where the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink. NEPA protects the health and safety of every family and community that stands to be threatened by developers and corporate polluters.
Shortcutting environmental reviews doesn’t just cost taxpayer money, it affects the health of our local communities. The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 people, sickened hundreds of clean-up workers, and spilled 4.9 million barrels of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico, is one such extreme example.
For low-income and minority communities, which are often disproportionately impacted by health problems associated with poorly planned federal projects, NEPA isn’t just an environmental protection statute. It’s a critical tool for civic engagement they cannot afford to lose. Almost half of all Latinos live in this country’s most polluted cities in areas where incinerators, power plants, and factories are clustered together. Progress has been made to reduce unhealthy air emissions, but in 2008, 127 million people still lived in counties that exceeded national air quality standards.
NEPA doesn’t just protect US citizens – it protects everyone. It protects the health and safety of every family and community that stands to be threatened, regardless of citizenship status.
NEPA Gives Voice
NEPA is democratic to its cores. It offers everyone a chance to participate in our political system, regardless of race, color, national origin, religion or economic status. This is crucial, since the federal government may sometimes fund projects or lease land for the benefit of wealthy corporations at the expense of a community’s health or families’ livelihood.
In many cases, NEPA gives citizens their only opportunity to voice concerns about a project’s impact on their community. And because informed public engagement often produces new ideas, information, and even solutions that the government might otherwise overlook, NEPA leads to better decisions – and better outcomes – for everyone.
In numerous cases, portions of or entire alternatives proposed by individual, municipalities, tribes, organizations, and others have been selected as a result of NEPA review. In other cases, members of the public have identified errors in underlying data or analyses. In 2009, a 1,500-page draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) by the Corps of Engineers was found to contain mathematical errors that substantially understated the risk profile of introducing non-native oysters into the Chesapeake Bay by several orders of magnitude. Public input and transparency under NEPA helped correct that mistake.
In a word, NEPA recognizes that when the public and federal experts work together, better decisions are made.
NEPA Promotes Government Transparency and Accountability
NEPA imposes a unique standard of accountability on the federal government by focusing on federal official’s duty to explain which environmental issues are addressed and why certain are not being considered. The net result of this due diligence mandate is greater assurance that the federal government is making the best decision based on the best information while engaging and informing the public it serves.
Over the years, NEPA has also functioned as an effective first and last line of defense against government mismanagement and industry abuse. In one project in North Carolina alone, NEPA helped save over $685 million when the review process led to the conclusion that improving existing roads rather than constructing a new bypass could meet project goals of reducing severe congestion in the region without significantly impact the environment. Similar NEPA success stories can be found across the nation.
That NEPA has been so effective in promoting government transparency and accountability is no accident. The passage of NEPA by Congress in 1970 was in part prompted by concerns from local communities in the 1950’s whose members felt their views had been ignored in setting routes for the establishment of the Interstate Highway System under President Eisenhower.
ON THE NORTHERN COAST OF PUERTO RICO, for example, NEPA has helped the town of Arecibo breathe a little easier. There, residents have used NEPA’s critical safeguards to halt a waste-to-energy incinerator that would operate in an area already contaminated with heavy metals.
The incinerator, which proponents hope will get federal financing, would reportedly burn more than 2,000 tons of trash a day less than two miles from the largest wetland in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico residents face 2.5 times the death rate from asthma as residents of the mainland United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so the incinerator’s toxic fumes would be dumped into the air in an already at-risk community.
For Arecibo—and many other communities around the country—NEPA offers life-saving protection.
NEPA Protects Our Environment
From Alaska’ Mount Denali to the Florida Everglades, America is blessed with a wealth of natural resources and diverse wildlife and wildlands spread across our National Parks, National Monuments, and National Forests. NEPA helps preserve and protect these public lands for the enjoyment of future generations.
In the case of Giant Sequoia National Park, for example, the U.S. Forest Service tried to claim that the risk of wildfires justified its plan to allow enough timber to fill more than 2,000 logging trucks a year. Conservationists sued, a federal judge labeled the logging proposal “incomprehensible,” and the giant trees were saved. In Michigan, NEPA similarly saved $1.5 billion and helped prevent the single largest loss of wetlands in state history of the state when an analysis revealed that improving an existing highway – rather than constructing a massive, four-lane freeway – met the project’s goals.
At the same time, much NEPA’s success lies in the battles we’ve been able to avoid. It’s so woven so deeply into our democratic framework that we often take it for granted. It’s that extraordinary ordinariness has made NEPA both so successful and so susceptible to under the radar attacks. It causes government agencies to improve countless projects, and keep bad ones from getting past the drawing board. It empowers the public with scrutiny and leverage that makes federal agencies factor environmental considerations into their decisions.