Lawsuit: Government illegally ‘cut corners’ to ram through NEPA changes

The White House rewrite will mask pollution’s full harm to communities, environment

Senior Attorney Kym Hunter (left) leads SELC’s team working to halt the federal gutting of NEPA. (© Mike Mather)

SELC is representing a group of 17 environmental organizations in a lawsuit filed today accusing the government of racing through an industry-friendly rewrite of the National Environmental Policy Act by “cutting corners” and discarding decades of rule-making policies that ensure major legal changes are done fairly and transparently.

If allowed to stand, the changes to NEPA – often called the “Magna Carta of environmental laws” – will reduce the public input that has guided major projects for decades, further diminish the voices of communities that have long suffered environmental injustices, and mask the full extent of polluting projects.

NEPA has given a voice to communities of lesser means that often bear the brunt of polluting projects. It is a tool of democracy, a tool for the people. We’re not going to stand idly by while the Trump administration eviscerates it.”

—Senior Attorney Kym Hunter

The lawsuit comes two weeks after President Donald Trump announced the damaging downgrade to NEPA at a press event in Atlanta. In doing so, the Trump administration sidestepped the longstanding legal process that guides law changes.

The Council on Environmental Quality, the agency in charge of the rewrite, “simply jettisoned the rules to give industry executives what they want at the expense of the public,” says Kym Hunter, an SELC senior attorney. “But the Trump administration isn’t allowed change a law by breaking the law. And we won’t let this administration get away with it.”

To rewrite NEPA, CEQ held just two public hearings, one in Washington D.C. and the other in Denver. Despite the limited in-person engagement, the agency received more than 1.1 million comments and, under CEQ policy, has a duty to review them. However, the agency moved forward with the rewritten rule four months later.

Meanwhile, responding to much smaller tasks like providing public records took CEQ more than a year and a half, hastened only when a judge ordered CEQ to quicken its pace.

In addition to skirting the law, the rewrite also damages NEPA by removing from consideration “cumulative impacts” and “indirect effects” when assessing large projects.

“Cumulative impacts” take into account how pollution from a new project – for example, increased car emissions spurred by a new interstate – are added to pollution already in place from the existing road network. “Indirect effects” are foreseeable changes that happen later, like increased sprawl and development from that new interstate.

Removing those considerations means communities will not be fully informed about the potential harmful consequences of proposed projects like pipelines, highways and intensive development.

“NEPA has given a voice to communities of lesser means that often bear the brunt of polluting projects,” Hunter says. “It is a tool of democracy, a tool for the people. We’re not going to stand idly by while the Trump administration eviscerates it.”

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