In the early 1990s, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) proposed building a one-hundred-mile freeway to replace U.S. Route 23 along the western shore of Lake Huron. Construction of the new $1.5 billion road required federal permits, making it subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Because of the size and scope of the project, MDOT and the Federal Highway Administration completed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and posted that document for public review and comment in September 1995. The findings in the draft EIS were shocking. Impacts of the project included conversion of farmland, increases in noise and air pollution in quiet rural communities, displacement of businesses and the largest wetlands loss in the history of the state. Further, the agencies proposed only two alternatives: build the road or do nothing.
The counties that would have been impacted voted roughly two to one for Donald Trump last November. But it was only thanks to NEPA, a federal environmental planning law many Republicans reject, that residents were able to fight this project, forcing MDOT to consider alternatives to the new road and ultimately to upgrade the existing highway instead. This alleviated traffic problems at a far lower cost to taxpayers without harming the environment or taking private property.
Stories like this are why President Nixon signed NEPA in 1970, after it passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. Rather than dictating any outcome, NEPA creates a process for consideration of alternatives and robust public participation — an opportunity for U.S. citizens to review and comment on proposed government projects or permits that will impact the places they live. It has been a strong vehicle for social and environmental justice for more than a generation, and there is no serious constituency for repealing it.
Unfortunately, right-wing leaders in Washington have turned NEPA into a punching bag, scapegoating the law for construction delays that result from their own refusal to appropriate funds for projects or from state and local permitting delays — not from NEPA. Government data shows that 99% of all NEPA analyses are completed without a full-blown EIS, almost all of these through a process that takes only a few days.
That hasn’t stopped Republicans from using what we now call alternative facts to argue for limiting and weakening NEPA review of surface transportation and water infrastructure projects. Sadly, some efforts to “streamline” NEPA have succeeded. Transparency and public input have been reduced, but there’s no evidence that construction delays have gone down.
Now we face the prospect of a $1 trillion infrastructure package from President Trump that will almost certainly ignore critical needs like coastal resiliency, grid modernization and expansion of high-speed broadband Internet. This package is likely to target NEPA and allow polluters to damage the environment and endanger people’s health with impunity. We cannot let that happen.
Before NEPA, the government could allow a private waste disposal company to open a landfill in your neighborhood without telling you, or build a highway through your backyard without considering alternative routes. Unsurprisingly, the majority of unsafe and unhealthy projects — including toxic waste dumps and dams that submerged whole towns under hundreds of feet of water — were sited in poor and minority urban neighborhoods and rural communities that lacked the political connections and financial resources to fight back.
NEPA changed this by leveling the playing field and creating a process for everyone, no matter the color of their skin or the size of their bank account, to participate in government decision-making. NEPA doesn’t prevent projects from being built; it ensures that they are built in a way that respects people and the places where they live.
When a certain proposed pipeline, coal export terminal or border wall would do irreparable damage to sites and resources valued by Native Americans, for example, government and business leaders should find a better way. By requiring this process, NEPA has led to massive savings for taxpayers, protection of private property from government takings and reductions in environmental damage.
When you hear that the Trump Administration or the Republican leadership in Congress are unveiling an infrastructure package, treat it the same way you treat a new product on the shelf at the grocery store: check the ingredients. If the package contains real investments in specific projects, it might be good for you. If the proposal is high in NEPA waivers and low in funding, we should all look for a healthier option.
Grijalva is a U.S. Representative for Arizona and the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
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