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.