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How ‘Freeway Revolts’ Helped Create the People’s Environmental Law

In the summer of 1969 a banner hung over a set of condemned homes in what was then the predominantly black and brown Brookland neighborhood in Washington, D.C. It read, “White man’s roads through black men’s homes.”

Earlier in the year, the District attempted to condemn the houses to make space for a proposed freeway. The plans proposed a 10-lane freeway, a behemoth of a project that would divide the nation’s capital end-to-end and sever iconic Black neighborhoods like Shaw and the U Street Corridor from the rest of the city.

Today, Brookland is not home to an interstate. The community’s protest forced the government to cancel its construction plans. And the activists’ efforts helped spur the passage of a law that gives all people the right to weigh in on projects that affect their communities—a right that is now under attack from the Trump administration and its allies.

Residents taking a stand in Brookland were the latest participants in the “Freeway Revolts,” a multi-decade effort to force federal planners to consider the impacts of large development projects on communities and ecosystems. During and after World War II, 6 million Black people moved from the South to cities in the Midwest and California, drawn by employment opportunities and driven by the violence and poverty of the Jim Crow South. Following this demographic shift and growth in cities across the United States, planners rewrote municipal zoning ordinances and separated residential, commercial, and industrial development. These policies promoted urban sprawl and white flight, which fed the culture of automobile dependency. 

The Freeway Revolts formed alliances across lines of race and socioeconomic status. In D.C., wealthy white residents of Takoma Park and Georgetown allied with middle-class black and brown residents in Brookland. In Seattle, the Black Panthers aligned with the Sierra Club in opposition to highway widening proposals. In San Francisco, Latinx communities joined hands with white residents to protest the Central Freeway’s devastation to homes and communities. These various communities realized how disruptive and destructive these large urban planning projects are to neighborhoods and communities.

Activists demonstrate against proposed freeway construction in San Francisco in 1960. // IMAGE COURTESY OF SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER

Lacking a voice in the development process, residents and community members in cities across the country used tactics that ranged from picketing, petitioning and leafleting to directly occupying facilities. In each case, however, the central message was the same: Government should not ransack homes, divide areas, and introduce new sources of smog and noise pollution without the consent of those affected.

In many places, the protests forced city governments to change their plans, or even led to the removal of freeways that had already been built. At the federal level, the protests helped inspire a law that ensures the people get to weigh in on projects that affect their health, homes, and neighborhoods: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This law has become one of the most important tools to protect communities and our environment—and now, it’s under attack by the Trump administration.

In 1969, after over a decade of relentless pressure and public activism, Congress passed NEPA in a nearly unanimous vote. The aim of the law was to create a national environmental policy that equally weighed environmental impacts and the voices of communities when federal agencies developed infrastructure projects. NEPA was the first law to require the federal government to conduct an environmental impact study (EIS) when embarking on a project. It required the federal government to tell the public what it wanted to develop and establish time for communities to comment and offer environmentally friendlier or less disruptive alternatives; alternatives the government must consider under NEPA.

Community leaders heightened the national consciousness of the effects of environmental degradation on communities throughout the second half of the 20th century. // PHOTO COURTESY OF U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

Over the years, it is communities of color—whose efforts made NEPA possible—that have invoked the law when seeking justice. After all, more than half of the people living less than two miles from a toxic waste site in the United States are people of color. Children of color are disproportionately more likely to face the dangerous health effects of lead poisoning. Indigenous communities like the Navajo Nation have been face-to-face with toxic water thanks to the legacy of uranium mining in the Southwest. In the Northern Mariana Islands, indigenous and low-income U.S. citizens are using NEPA to compel the U.S. Navy to consider the effects that artillery, rockets and bombardment will have on their tropical homeland and sacred sites. According to Cinta Kaipat, a resident of the island Saipan, NEPA allows communities to “fight this fight without firing a shot. The military will sit up and hear our voices.”

Right now, communities of color are using NEPA to challenge the Keystone XL pipeline, President Trump’s illegal border wall, waste incinerators in Puerto Rico, intrusive transit plans in Los Angeles, and pollution from the KCI Airport in Kansas City. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana successfully used NEPA to thwart Trump administration’s plans to reopen coal-mining leases on public lands. Ill-conceived development along the I-70 Corridor near Denver stopped thanks to NEPA. It is community voices, not those of polluting and profit-driven corporations with armies of well-paid litigators and lobbyists that are most likely to be excluded or ignored in the decision-making process. And it is their voices that can help stop further division and destruction in our environments if they are made apart of the planning process.

Put simply, the National Environmental Policy Act is a tool to help uplift the people’s environmental voice. That’s why it’s no wonder that the Trump administration and its allies want to stifle it, either by exempting certain proposals from oversight, limiting the length of public comment periods or eliminating public comment altogether.

Communities in the Northern Mariana Islands are using NEPA to challenge the U.S. Navy’s plan to conduct live-fire training on the island of Pågan. // PHOTO COURTESY OF DAN LIN

The spirit that drove communities of color and neighborhood residents throughout the U.S. to hang banners, picket, sit in, and stand up in the 1950s and 1960s is alive today. Even though several communities of color across the nation have been displaced and burdened by pollution because of freeway development projects in the 1960s, NEPA helps to fight against exclusionary and environmentally disruptive planning processes. 

As we fight to end environmental racism, we cannot allow the Trump administration and its allies in Congress to retrench the people’s tools for access to justice. We cannot allow them to limit public comments and continue to shut communities out of the NEPA process. It is through direct action and community engagement that NEPA came to be; safeguarding it gives people more power to be a part of the decisions that determine what happens in their communities.
This article is written by Teju Adisa-Farrar Raul Garcia and was originally published by Earthjustice. 

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Senate Committee Pushes McNamee FERC Nomination Forward, Driven by Millions in Fossil Fuel Money

Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee voted on Tuesday to push the controversial nomination of Bernard McNamee for Commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to the full Senate, on a mostly party-line vote.

McNamee currently leads the Office of Policy at the Department of Energy, where he helped to roll out Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s failed attempt to bail out the coal and nuclear industries. His resume reads like a who’s who in the fossil fuel industry and the far-right political crowd.

McNamee has deep ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Koch-funded organization that has provided a pipeline of Trump nominees, including the former nominee to the Council For Environmental Quality that even Republicans agreed was unqualified for the job. It was there that McNamee spearheaded “Life: Powered,” a project launched by the group in 2015 “to combat the Obama-era Clean Power Plan,” according to TPPF’s 2017 annual report. He also served as a senior advisor and counsel to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). This past Earth Day, he authored a love letter to fossil fuels that implored Americans to remember how “the responsible use of America’s abundant resources of natural gas, oil and coal have dramatically improved the human condition.”

Joe Manchin joined Republicans in voting for McNamee, 13-10, even in spite of a recent video that shows McNamee criticizing renewable energy and expressing strong support for the sole use of fossil fuels – as well as describing environmental advocacy as “tyranny.” This vote serves to underscore a continuing problem in Washington: that a nominee who, on the record, has showed significant bias toward the fossil fuel industry, is lauded and promoted by Senators to lead the very agency where he is expected to remain impartial.

The 13 Senators who voted in the Committee to move McNamee’s nomination forward have taken a combined total of nearly $10 million from the fossil fuel industry – bought and paid for by an industry that accelerates the climate crisis and only cares about protecting their profits. It is evident that fossil fuel money is both crippling our democracy and destroying our climate, influencing the structural branches of government that regulate our nation’s infrastructure and energy supply.

The key numbers breakdown:

Combined fossil fuel contributions to Senators voting for McNamee: nearly $10,000,000
Average lifetime dirty energy money per Senator voting for McNamee: $755,219
Average lifetime dirty energy money per Senator voting against McNamee: $88,682

That works out to more than 8 times the dirty energy money taken by those voting in favor of McNamee’s nomination than the average of those voting against the clearly fossil-biased pick. Today’s vote moving McNamee’s nomination forward shows that the industry’s grip on Washington politics is still suffocating our democracy. McNamee will go before the Senate next month for a full vote on his nomination, where we will have one more chance to push against the industry’s influence and prevent McNamee from becoming the next Commissioner of FERC.

 

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EPA Clouds Transparency for Environmental Impact Statements

The Environmental Protection Agency has decided to stop the combination of letter and numeral grades for evaluating Environmental Impact Statements prepared by the federal agencies. The two-factor grading system graded both the quality of the analysis and the actual level of environmental impact. This change will dim the transparency of the federal agencies’ work. This new policy will make it much harder for the public or press to judge early-on the seriousness of environmental impacts of the project and the quality of the agencies’ analysis of that impact. There’s a simple analogy: What if we got rid of grades in schools?

Teacher Ben:
“Well class, as you requested, we will no longer grade your final examinations. However, we will continue to put comments in the margins of your exams where we think more work is needed. We will not send a letter grades to your parents but will send them a copy of your final essay with our comments in the margins.”
Who does this help? Bueller?

Since 1984 EPA have evaluated environmental impact statements of federal agencies for both the adequacy of the NEPA documentation and the actual level of environmental impacts. They also make specific comments to the environmental analysis.  They will continue with specific comments but no longer have a clear summary grade.

The EPA website lists the grading options (reprinted before the material is deleted from the EPA website):
EPA has developed a set of criteria for rating a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). EPA rates the draft EIS on an alpha-numeric system and includes the designated rating in EPA’s comment letter. In general, the rating is based on the lead agency’s preferred alternative. The rating system provides a basis upon which EPA makes recommendations to the lead agency for improving the draft EIS. The alphabetical categories listed below signify EPA’s evaluation of the environmental impacts of the proposal: 
LO (Lack of Objections)
EC (Environmental Concerns)
EO (Environmental Objections)
​EU (Environmentally Unsatisfactory)
The numerical categories listed below signify an evaluation of the adequacy of the draft EIS: 
1 (Adequate)
2 (Insufficient Information)
3 (Inadequate)
The rating of the draft EIS consists of one of the category combinations shown below:
LO
EC-1, EC-2
EO-1, EO-2, EO-3
​EU-1, EU-2, EU-3, or 3
https://www.epa.gov/nepa/environmental-impact-statement-rating-system-criteria
(October 26, 2018)
The combined letter-numerical system was simple, edifying and useful to the press and public.

On October 22, however, EPA announced it would end the grading policy. Before announcing this abrupt change of this Reagan Administration policy, EPA did not talk to environmental advocates, project sponsors, states, tribes or other affected groups. EPA did get input from—using my analogy—the students—the federal agencies, who thought dropping the grading system was a swell idea. Better to hide inadequately prepared environmental reviews as well as the seriousness of the likely environmental impacts? Agencies argued that grading was inconsistent among EPA Regions but that issue exists in almost all grading that are not true-false or multiple choice. 

The National Environmental Policy Act is a foundational environmental statute meant to give the public a chance to comment and understand what the federal government is doing an action that may significantly impact the environment or their community. Making this material accessible is very important. The Trump administration and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, evidently think differently. Now, affected communities will not have a heads-up from environmental experts at EPA on the seriousness of the environmental threat unless they trudge through the high technical comments of the EPA and the often-technical language in the environmental review.

EPA is still required by Section 309 of the Clean Air Act to evaluate and send comments on the EISs to the agency responsible. Under law, EPA must still forward projects that would have an unsatisfactory environmental impact to the Council of Environmental Quality but the memo announcing this new policy noted that such a referral would be “rare.” The original plan, outlined in President Trump’s Infrastructure Plan, was to repeal the Clean Air Act provision thereby eliminating both the EPA review and consequently the referral to CEQ for projects that had an unsatisfactory environmental impacts. Removing the grading system is their Option B.

 
Scott Slesinger is Legislative Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  

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5 Recommendations to Speed Infrastructure Permitting Without Gutting Environmental Review

Getty/Justin SullivanWorkers construct scaffolding on a bridge in California, March 2014.

There is significant bipartisan agreement that the need to fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure is critical. However, the environmental review process for permitting these infrastructure projects often becomes the scapegoat for any delays. Because of this, there have been a number of efforts to amend, weaken, and even scrap federal environmental review requirements over the years. But this review is critical—not only because it protects clean air and clean water for U.S. residents but also because it allows for public input to be collected and considered, ensuring that affected communities have a chance to weigh in on project alternatives.
Over the past six years, Congress has acted on three separate occasions to address common permitting challenges, passing the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) in 2012, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) in 2014, and the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act in 2015. These bills provide the federal government with an array of tools to expedite permitting processes, without sacrificing environmental considerations and community input. But with President Donald Trump’s issuance of Executive Order 13807 in August 2017, environmental review is again on the chopping block.
Instead of asking Congress to cut corners and gut cornerstone environmental laws, here are five ways that federal agencies and their partners can use the tools already at their disposal to speed infrastructure permitting.

1. Fully implement existing permitting reforms and authorities that were enacted in the FAST Act, the WRRDA, and MAP-21
The three pieces of legislation noted above provided a number of new tools to federal agencies to speed environmental review. But the Trump administration continues to point to the permitting process as the main cause for project delays. Limited existing data, however, show that delays are more often the result of a lack of funding, failure to govern, and even politics.
As one way to address this, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish a public-facing online tracking system of projects in the permitting process. Project sponsors and the public are now able to use the tracking system—known as the Federal Infrastructure Permitting Dashboard—to expedite projects and understand the true causes of any delays. The permitting dashboard is still very much a work in progress, but it has significant untapped potential that could be improved through an investment in resources to ensure that it is upgraded on a regular basis.
Additionally, extensive and rigorous training components for subject matter experts across the government on how these new tools and authorities affect their work would ensure that the tools are being effectively employed. The Annual Report to Congress for Fiscal Year 2017 from the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC) shows that each agency has at least one updated online training tool. Leaders of permitting in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) should prioritize developing a strong community of practice across the government so that practitioners can regularly share case studies, training tools, and data needs.

2. Appoint people with collaborative project implementation and permitting expertise across the government
It is impossible for environmental review, and therefore permitting, to be streamlined without appropriate staff to do the work. Yet President Trump has failed to appoint people to key positions that could help accelerate project delivery, including positions within the EOP that are integral to coordinating reviews. In 2015, the FPISC was established to bring agencies together to discuss review challenges and share best practices, as well as to provide a connection to the EOP and the president. Yet the Trump administration has still not appointed anyone to lead the FPISC, which indicates a lack of high-level investment in permitting. The administration should make it a priority to fill these positions if it wants to see expedited permitting timelines.

3. Fund environmental review through implementing existing fee authority for cost recovery and regular appropriations
The FAST Act allowed the FPISC to create “a fee structure for project proponents to reimburse the United States for reasonable costs incurred in conducting environmental reviews and authorizations” for certain projects. The FPISC, however, has taken far too long to begin implementing this provision given the relative priority the Trump administration claims to place on expedited permitting. This new source of funding could help substantially, as permitting under the FAST Act only applies to the most complex projects.

4. Study and collect data on environmental review contracting practices
Federal agencies frequently turn to outside firms to conduct environmental reviews. For example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has contracted with Environmental Management and Planning Solutions Inc. to do the environmental review for oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The contract award is for $1,667,550.44, and information from the General Services Administration shows that the federal contractor bills $214 per hour for a senior scientist’s time. While this may be a bargain for taxpayers, it is difficult to say for certain given the lack of data and other information on the frequency, cost, or efficacy of outsourcing essential environmental analysis. To address this, Congress should work with the U.S. Government Accountability Office to study and gather information about federal contracting practices for environmental review across the federal government.

5. Remove political influence from the environmental review process
The permitting review process must be objective and free from the political interests and conflicts that can so easily stall, delay, or even derail infrastructure projects. But the administration’s handling of the Hudson Tunnel project, an infrastructure proposal to modernize the bridges and tunnels that ferry more than 200,000 commuters per day to and from New Jersey and Manhattan, lays bare the current level of political meddling in the review process. Since a bipartisan meeting in September 2017, the president has refused to fund the project unless the Senate agrees to fund the southern border wall. The Trump administration points to burdensome environmental reviews as the culprit for delay—yet recently, an administration official was quoted as saying that the administration is “slow-walking” the completed review’s release.

Conclusion
Already, there is evidence that these tools, when used, can ensure that environmental review of major infrastructure projects is efficient. Instead of rushing headlong into further gutting the statutes that provide for public input on infrastructure and that protect clean air, clean water, and wildlife, the administration should put its existing toolkit to use.
Christy Goldfuss is the senior vice president for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress. This article was originally published by the Center for American Progress. 

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Trump proposal to weaken project reviews threatens the ‘Magna Carta of environmental law’

Building the U.S. Interstate highway system in the 1950s and 60s is often cited as one of government’s great achievements. But it had harmful impacts too. Many city communities were bulldozed to make space for freeways. Across the nation, people vigorously objected to having no say in these decisions, leading to “freeway revolts.”

This outcry, coupled with the growing environmental movement, gave rise to the idea – revolutionary at the time – that agencies should take a hard look at the environmental impacts of their actions, consider reasonable alternatives and allow community input. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), enacted in 1970, codified these principles and allowed citizens to sue if they believed government had not complied. Because it represents a turning point in thinking about environmental protection, NEPA has been called the “Magna Carta of environmental law.”

Despite NEPA’s demonstrated successes, critics have attacked it for years, usually based on anecdotes claiming that lengthy environmental reviews caused project delays. President Donald Trump’s infrastructure initiative is the latest example. And on May 3, 2018, the Trump administration announced that it will soon propose changes to the rules that guide federal agencies carrying out NEPA reviews.

As attorneys who held senior positions at the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, including managing the agency’s NEPA office, we have extensive experience with NEPA reviews. Expert studies reveal a vast disconnect between the evidence, which shows that NEPA is not the cause of project delays, and the sweeping changes that NEPA critics are proposing. This disconnect reveals that current proposals aren’t really about speeding up projects, but are instead part of a broad deregulatory agenda that prioritizes business interests over public benefits from environmental protection.

Poster opposing a planned freeway in Washington, D.C., that was ultimately canceled in 1977. Greater Greater Washington, CC BY
NEPA reviews aren’t the cause of project delays
Over more than four decades, NEPA has helped government agencies make smarter choices about public infrastructure, reducing damage to both natural environments and communities and avoiding the costs of correcting ill-considered projects.

For example, in the 1990s Michigan’s state transportation agency wanted to build a four-lane highway across a huge swath of important wetlands. Using NEPA, citizens forced the state to consider alternatives. Ultimately the state decided to expand an existing highway instead, dramatically reducing environmental harm and saving US$1.5 billion. Similar stories have occurred across the country.

Critics have long used “NEPA is slowing projects down!” as their rallying cry. Independent experts have looked at the evidence and reached a different conclusion.

The most authoritative independent studies were done by the Government Accounting Office in 2014 and the Congressional Research Service in 2011 and 2012. They found that the vast majority of projects have very streamlined reviews.

About 95 percent of all projects subject to NEPA go through a very short process called a “categorical exclusion” that usually takes from a few days to a few months. Another 4 percent have a short and straightforward review, called an “environmental assessment,” that usually takes between four and 18 months. Less than 1 percent of projects are subject to a full review, which is called an “environmental impact statement.”

Typically, these are large-scale initiatives such as a new highway, a major dredging project or a multistate pipeline. You wouldn’t know it from rhetoric in Washington, but the sweeping changes being proposed to NEPA are focused on less than 1 percent of projects.

These independent investigations also found that NEPA reviews are not the reason that the biggest projects take time. State and local issues, such as funding shortfalls, changing priorities and local controversy, are the most significant influence on whether a project moves forward quickly or takes longer than anticipated. Of course, there are examples where environmental reviews took too long, but in many cases these reviews started and stopped for reasons unrelated to environmental issues.
Not about efficiency
In fact, by requiring agencies to consider alternatives to their envisioned projects, environmental reviews can speed things up by identifying better options and solving problems that could be costly or cause delays in the long run – a common issue in highway construction, for example. As our shop teachers advised, “Measure twice, cut once.” This is one reason why federal agencies that use NEPA most, including the Department of Transportation, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Energy, have long voiced support for it.

Enshrining unsupported policy in statutes passed by Congress makes those choices much harder to fix. Here’s what the president wants to do that would require changing the law:

– Take environmental agencies out of NEPA reviews. Congress recognized that some federal agencies are focused on building things, like highways or energy projects, and that protecting the environment is not their mission or area of expertise. That’s why it gave EPA a central role in NEPA studies by other agencies.

EPA involvement has helped reduce adverse environmental impacts through early up front coordination, without adding time. The agency routinely produces its comments within 30 days. The Trump infrastructure plan proposes to eliminate EPA’s review role.

– Cut a huge hole in consideration of alternatives. The Trump proposal would insert waffle words, like provisions limiting alternatives to those that the applicant finds “economically feasible” or are within the applicant’s “capability,” into NEPA’s requirement for agencies to consider reasonable alternatives. This approach allows applicants to avoid considering options they don’t like.

Consideration of alternatives is the heart of NEPA. Thinking hard about how projects can be done with less environmental damage – for example, by reusing an already developed site instead of paving over open space – improves designs, saves money and builds public support.

– Set the stage for getting rid of NEPA completely. In case anyone misses the point, the Trump plan allows some projects to bypass all environmental reviews on a “pilot” basis. A recent report by the conservative Heritage Foundation follows the same playbook by calling for repeal of NEPA.

Pete Brunner of Falmouth, Maine, casts for Atlantic salmon on the Penobscot River in 2006. A NEPA review led to denial in 1997 of a permit for a major hydropower plant on the Penobscot after the study showed that it would harm salmon. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File
Change NEPA practice, not the law
Over the last 45 years federal agencies have improved their processes for carrying out NEPA reviews, through steps such as providing more up front consultation. The Obama administration was continuing that effort with a number of consensus efficiency improvements that show promise for speeding things up without undercutting NEPA’s important goals.

By requiring government agencies to think before they act, NEPA has avoided countless harmful and ill-considered ideas. As the secretary of energy said in 1992, after halting a project that would have cost billions, “[T]hank God for NEPA because there were so many pressures to make a selection for a technology that might have been forced upon us and that would have been wrong for the country.”

Federal agencies should keep finding ways to implement NEPA more efficiently. What the federal government shouldn’t do is make enormous statutory changes based on incorrect claims about a fraction of 1 percent of projects – or disregard the lesson of the last 45 years that the most efficient choice is to build things right the first time.
About the authors: Janet McCabe served as Deputy Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation (OAR) from 2009 to 2013, and as Acting Assistant Administrator for OAR from 2013-2017. She is a senior law fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Center and a member of Duke Energy’s Indiana Citizens Advisory Board. Cynthia Giles served as Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance from 2009 to 2017. She is currently the Director of Strategic Initiatives and Executive Fellow at the Energy & Environment Lab at the University of Chicago.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. To read the original article, please click here.

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Trump’s Infrastructure Scam Will Gut Environmental Protections To Benefit Corporate Polluters

In his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump is expected to announce a long-awaited plan to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure and call on the U.S. Congress to work with his administration on related legislation. Leaked versions of the infrastructure proposal, however, show that this is not a plan to put Americans to work rebuilding crumbling infrastructure. Instead, it’s a full-scale gutting of environmental protections to benefit corporate polluters and steamroll American communities.

As detailed in the leaked proposal, the Trump administration’s plan would require fundamental changes to no fewer than 10 bedrock environmental laws that protect the nation’s clean air, clean water, wildlife, and national parks. The plan would hollow out the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the law that requires federal project sponsors to consult with stakeholders who would be affected by new projects and identify ways to reduce their impact on the environment, public health, and cultural resources. The Endangered Species Act is also in the crosshairs, as several provisions would prioritize new development over the protection of wildlife that is on the brink of extinction. The Trump administration proposes significant changes to the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act to make it easier for corporations to break ground and avoid inconvenient air and water quality protections. The proposal even includes some mystifying provisions, such as one to give Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke unilateral authority to site natural gas pipelines in national parks.

The Trump administration will attempt to brand these environmental attacks as an effort to improve the infrastructure permitting process. In actuality, they are attempting to steamroll hardworking Americans by silencing or disregarding communities’ voices in determining where pipelines, highways, and other large projects should be built. Example after example shows the foolishness of that approach for the environment and public health. One only needs to look at certain communities that were built 50 years ago—before NEPA and other environmental laws existed—to see the detrimental impacts of this type of decision-making. In a particularly stark example, a low-income community in Orlando, Florida, continues to suffer the consequences of short-sighted transportation policy decisions that left the neighborhood surrounded by highways, isolated from the rest of the city, and trapped in a haze of air pollution.

While the Trump administration is proposing measures to sell out our air, water, and national parks to corporate polluters, it is ignoring tangible steps that it could take without gutting environmental protections. An important first step would be to implement laws already on the books. In 2012 and 2015 respectively, Congress enacted two pieces of legislation—the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) and Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act—that contain provisions aimed at expediting the permitting process that are not fully implemented, such as measures to reduce duplication; track the progress of project delivery; integrate mapping and other data tools with fiscal management systems; and facilitate efforts to align historic preservation regulations. Congress also created the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council to manage the permitting process for certain complex projects.

Implementing new laws takes time, and layering new provisions only makes it harder. In March 2017, the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) inspector general found that DOT delayed implementing a significant number of MAP-21’s reforms because they had to stop midstream and comply with additional provisions mandated in the FAST Act. Rather than understanding and deploying the tools it already has, the Trump administration has jumped to the nuclear option—radical environmental rollbacks that grease the process for corporations at the expense of air and water quality and wildlife.

The best way for the Trump administration to speed up permitting without sacrificing environmental protection is to adequately fund the relevant federal agencies involved in the permitting and environmental review process. Without funding, the federal agencies cannot hire and train staff to complete environmental reviews or invest in technology that provides efficiencies. In DOT’s “how-to” guide for environmental reviews, the agency notes that limited budgets and staff resources preclude many regulatory and resource agencies from assigning staff to work on reviews when they may already be strained to process pending workload in a timely manner. Instead of funding these professionals to provide the best information to make informed decisions, the Trump administration has proposed slashing agency budgets and undertaken the greatest assault that has ever been seen in the history of this country on these agencies that protect clean air, clean water, wildlife, and national parks.

With such a public record of promoting the interests of corporate polluters over communities and the environment, no one should be fooled by Trump’s infrastructure scam. It is little more than a Trojan horse designed to gut the environmental protections that are necessary for the clean air, clean water, wildlife, and national parks that truly make America great.

Christy Goldfuss is the senior vice president for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress. Alison Cassady is the managing director for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center

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A World Without NEPA: Uranium Mining in Utah

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed in 1969. NEPA requires government agencies to assess significant environmental and public health impacts of major federal actions before the decisions are finalized, to inform the public of those impacts and to solicit input on the proposal and reasonable alternatives. NEPA accounts for the fact that while corporations may profit from major project approvals, it’s the public, and the environment, that must live with the consequences. It is the law that ensures that informed decision-making, public engagement and accountability are components of a huge range of federal actions from managing our public lands and approving massive projects like dams and logging operations to insecticide and chemical permitting. These types of decisions often dramatically impact the health and resilience of human communities as well as threatened and endangered species and other wildlife.
But NEPA’s requirement for transparency, for consideration of public input and project alternatives doesn’t sit well with everyone. Over the last several years, hundreds of pieces of legislation have been introduced that would weaken NEPA or waive it entirely. The 115th Congress alone has already been the source of over 40 such proposals that would waive NEPA or limit the scope of its analyses. The bills have attacked NEPA in different realms — sometimes for highway projects and dams, other times for logging projects. The strategy of slowly eroding the core provisions of NEPA is troubling. Now, under the guise of “modernizing NEPA” the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep Rob Bishop of Utah — an avid opponent of NEPA and the Endangered Species Act — is holding a hearing targeting the NEPA as a whole.
If this agenda succeeds, millions of Americans and scores of local governments could lose notice about impacts that projects will have on their communities and lose their voice in federal decisions.
The Cautionary Tale of Uranium Mining in Utah

If there is one example that clearly illustrates the value of subjecting agency decision-making to public scrutiny, it is the impact and clean-up of the Atlas Uranium Mill tailings, a waste by-product of uranium mining, on the banks of the Colorado River in Chairman Bishop’s home state of Utah.

The United States’ first commercially operated uranium mill was built on the bank of the Colorado River near Moab, Utah in 1956 and expanded by the Atlas Minerals Corporation beginning in 1961. This facility extracted yellowcake uranium for nuclear bombs and reactors from ores trucked from over 300 mines on the Colorado Plateau.
Without the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its mandated review process, the mine’s potential impacts on the environment and community health were not made public when the government approved the project, and the public was given no opportunity to weigh in on alternatives or propose mitigation options.
Since then, the slime-like wastes from the mill, laced with radium, uranium, thorium, polonium, ammonia, molybdenum, selenium and nitrates, were slurried into an unlined pond in the floodplain of the river. As the need for a larger waste site grew, contaminated soils were bulldozed up to raise the sides of the tailings impoundment. By 1984, when the mill was finally put on standby, the pile of radioactive wastes had grown to 12 million tons, covering 130 acres to a depth of 110 feet.

The Atlas site is the fifth largest uranium tailings pile in the United States and by far the most dangerously polluted. Today’s discharge of contaminated groundwater into the river is estimated at 110,000 gallons per day.
The removal of the radioactive waste from Moab is expected to take in excess of 10 years to complete. The cost of the relocation was originally estimated to be $300 million, but 2008 Department of Energy estimates are in excess of $720 million. Groundwater treatment will continue for approximately 75 years to the cost of $70 million. Atlas Corporation, the former owner, left behind a painfully underestimated reclamation bond of $4.5 million.

While the mill’s initial approval was not subject to NEPA, thankfully, the decision of what to do with the contamination was. On April 6, 2005, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced that the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Moab mill site recommended moving the 12 million tons of radioactive waste by train to a new site in Crescent Junction thirty miles north of the Colorado River — finally limiting further damage to the environment and public health.
This victory was made possible through NEPA and the forum it provided for the remarkable outpour of public comments during the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIS) stage to be heard. This public involvement included comments from a bipartisan coalition of western Governors from Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah, who together sent a strongly worded letter to the Department of Energy stating that the only solution acceptable to them was the removal of the wastes to a safe location. A bipartisan western congressional coalition, which included members of the House Resources Committee, also participated in the NEPA process by submitting similarly strong letters, as did several major downstream water districts.
The successful use of NEPA in facilitating the Atlas mill cleanup, is a great example, but it is hardly unique. Examples from across the country show that when NEPA is adequately employed, it faithfully protects our health, our homes, our treasured public lands and wildlife and our environment generally.
So why should we care if NEPA is under attack?
We should care what happens to NEPA because our right to be informed of significant impacts to the environment and to our communities is on the line, along with our ability to have a say and hold the government accountable for major federal decisions. In short, we should care because the health and safety of our communities, our air and water, our public lands and wildlife and our environment are on the line. The National Environmental Policy Act may be a law you have never heard of, but it makes a big difference in keeping our communities and our environment safe.

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Streamline Infrastructure Reviews? Been There, Done That

President Trump bragged about “massively streamlining” the approval process for infrastructure projects such as bridges and roads with the Ohio River as a backdrop as steel company executives, labor leaders and local and federal officials looked on.

Mr. President: This is not a new issue, as I know all too well from my work on it over the past 15 years. And there’s a lot of policy on the books for addressing it.

Of course, history goes much further back, namely to an elegantly simple set of protections signed into law in 1970 by the Nixon administration. That law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) simply requires the federal government to examine the potential environmental impact of federally funded activities and share its findings with the public so we have a say in the process. This commonsense law has been fundamental to our success in cleaning up the environment. Under NEPA, the Department of Transportation and other agencies are afforded the opportunity to fix problems with environmental compliance and review before decisions are finalized.

And the reality is that projects requiring time-consuming EISs have plummeted and only a fraction of these are challenged in court. According the Council on Environmental Quality at the White House, as quoted in a 2014 Government Accountability Office report, 95 percent of NEPA-required analyses are short and simple because the project is “categorically excluded” from more comprehensive review. About four percent go through a more rigorous “Environmental Assessment” and just one percent are subject to the most thorough review, an “Environmental Impact Statement” or EIS. The dramatic reduction in EISes filed in the Federal Register is shown below (Source: EPA).

Number of EISs in the Federal Register (EPA)

Pulling back the lens to consider all the steps in project development, including for example getting design right, dealing with local controversies, lining up adequate funding or even simply moving a project up on the priority list of a government bureaucracy, it’s clear that environmental reviews have been unfairly singled out for holding up projects. Instead, delays are usually due to funding decisions or opposition from a community or politician.

And there are other perverse incentives at work in infrastructure project development, explaining why consultants and engineers tend to find ways to stretch time frames and expenses of projects. Professional Engineer Chuck Marohn pulls back the curtain on some of these dynamics in a trenchant piece on the strongtowns.org web site.

But it’s easy to scapegoat environmental reviews as the cause of delay or expense.

Never mind that these reviews help boost public involvement in project design, as per the original purpose of these reviews. As Texas Tech Assistant Professor Kristen Moore found in a recent paper examining the work of a communications firm in the Midwestern U.S., in order to engage the public in the review of a large rail project, the company reached more than 1,000 people through activities including public open house events where affected citizens could talk with subject matter experts about their concerns and questions. And we’ve collected many similar stories of how projects were improved thanks to public involvement.  

There is, on the other hand, ample evidence of the costs and consequences paid by communities and the environment in the absence of the protection offered by this important law, as described vividly by Kevin DeGood of the Center for American Progress.

While undue attention is paid to these useful reviews, I recognize that there are nonetheless issues that need to be untangled. Longstanding CEQ guidance says EISs should be less than 150 pages long, except in the case of complex ones which should span fewer than 300 pages (CEQ, 1978). There are, however, EISs that span thousands of pages and are therefore unlikely to be read by the public as originally intended.

Thankfully, the Executive Branch now has ample tools for getting the job done. I know this well, because I’ve been working on this issue for a long time now. In fact, I first testified in front of a Congressional subcommittee about a bill that proposed to expedite project delivery in 2002. Due to Congressional interest in the issue, the 2005 transportation law included several provisions aimed at “streamlining” the process. After that law expired, Congress passed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) which contained a raft of additional streamlining provisions as I wrote about here. And then in 2015, Congress passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) which included the largest-ever number of streamlining provisions. And not just on transportation, but on most other infrastructure categories as described in this Environmental Law Institute paper.

With this huge statutory box of tools available, what’s needed now is savvy management of federal agencies implementing the law effectively. As a seasoned NEPA practitioner quipped in a recent Duke University report based on interviews of 15 experts in a dozen federal agencies, “Lack of communication and collaboration between federal agencies, with the public, and among decision-makers is 95% of what is wrong with NEPA implementation…”

Among the sensible, specific recommendations in that report are improving information technology at agencies so that there is one database of NEPA documents, with a public-facing component (like this dashboard) as well as Decision-Support Systems to improve work within and between agencies as well as the public, and making use of technology to expand the use of programmatic reviews which apply to sets of federal actions and which can therefore reduce the review burden for each one (and despite recent CEQ guidance encouraging this according to the Duke scholars only 7 of the 12 agencies they surveyed use this tool).

The simple truth is that it’s time to stop scapegoating NEPA. We must instead tackle real problems in transportation.

That includes rooting out perverse incentives for consultants and engineers to stretch out project time frames and costs.

And it includes delivering actual funding for projects, which Congress has balked at repeatedly. Funding is the dog that wags the tail here, and as such deserves renewed focus.

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