News | February 27, 2018

Federal attack on key environmental law hidden within infrastructure plan

Not long after President Donald Trump began stocking environmental positions with science deniers and pro-industry advocates, groups like SELC started girding for a head-on fight to protect the nation’s bedrock environmental laws. But the attack on the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, has unfolded more discretely.

The biggest threat so far to NEPA – often called the “Magna Carta of environmental laws” – is coming from the Trump administration’s plans to focus on the nation’s infrastructure.

“And it is coming cloaked in a shroud of flat-out falsehoods,” said Kym Hunter, an SELC attorney heading the organization’s defense of NEPA. “President Trump is pointing to NEPA as a law that wastes money and costs jobs. But in reality, NEPA does the opposite.”

In a 55-page plan released earlier this month, President Trump complained that important protections like NEPA and the Endangered Species Act sometimes stall infrastructure projects. He’s asking Congress to consider reducing the amount of oversight that has traditionally balanced construction projects with environmental protections.

SELC along with its partners and clients are pushing back against a false narrative linking project delays to environmental review.

“What really delays these big construction and infrastructure projects is funding, or rather, a lack of it,” Hunter said. “It’s part of the Trump playbook to single out environmental reviews as the chokepoint, but the vast majority of these projects bog down because there’s not enough money, not enough benefit, or not enough public support.”

NEPA – which is often used to ensure transparency in projects affecting forests, rivers, and mountains – is central to the work of environmental defenders like SELC. But it is generally lesser known to the public.

In effect since 1970, NEPA guides the government’s most critical decisions on long-term projects like road building, land management, and permit applications. It requires that the government consider the environment in these big decisions, reveal the costs and impacts, and explore alternatives that are more protective of the landscape.

NEPA is often what smaller communities rely upon to be fully informed about major projects that will affect their homes and jobs. And it gives them a voice in the decisions.

“It is literally a tool for democratic decision making,” Hunter said.

Across SELC’s six-state region, NEPA has played a critical role in reshaping major projects and policies.

  • In Virginia, NEPA helped craft a compromise that allowed commercial logging in the George Washington National Forest while protecting some of the forest’s most pristine and special areas.
  • Also in Virginia, a long-shelved plan for a Charlottesville bypass was suddenly resurrected, but the NEPA process allowed the public to champion better ideas for improving traffic. The suite of upgrades included in the ensuing Route 29 improvement project has since been held up as a model for tackling congestion in the state.
  • In Georgia, a logging proposal that violated the forest management plan was discovered and improved through a NEPA review.
  • In North Carolina, the NEPA review process allowed the public to object to a proposed billion-dollar toll road, the Garden Parkway, as an expensive waste of resources that wasn’t needed and wouldn’t provide any of the promised benefits. The plan was scuttled.
  • Also in North Carolina, NEPA helped shape the Chapel Hill/Durham light rail, one of the region’s most ambitions transportation projects. Public input led to the addition of a station, and a route that better aided underserved communities.

“It’s abundantly clear that when transparency is embraced and public voices are valued, the government arrives at better decisions,” Hunter said. “NEPA must be the guide for any effort to invigorate or modernize infrastructure. Our states, our cities, and our small towns will be better off if NEPA is allowed to play its important role.”