A coalition of dozens of groups in the Great Lakes region has called for more time to review a proposed change in environmental legislation, saying the federal government is trying to push through the potentially damaging change without adequate public input.
The National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law in 1970, and is considered the United States’ first major environmental law. It requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impact of proposed federal actions.
The coalition says the proposed revision would weaken the law by omitting climate change impacts and narrowing the range of projects that require environmental reviews. It wants a chance to properly evaluate the proposal and the environmental effects future government projects would have on the region, home to 21% of the world’s surface fresh water.
“This rollback of the NEPA process will short-circuit environmental reviews and restrict the public’s voice,” said Rachel Granneman, staff attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center, one of the groups sending the letter. “Great Lakes residents want to be able to voice their concerns at a public hearing and to have a more reasonable amount of time to evaluate and comment on this major change to how large projects will be evaluated.”
The groups, which range from business interest organizations to religious orders, wrote to the Council on Environmental Quality asking it to extend the comment period for proposed changes to the implementation of the NEPA to 180 days and hold a public hearing somewhere in the Great Lakes region.
Currently, the CEQ will allow the public to submit comments until March 10. The council is also scheduled to hold only two hearings on the changes. The first meeting will be held in Denver Feb. 11, and the second will be held in Washington, D.C., Feb. 25.
“The goal of NEPA is to ensure well-informed decision-making, but the process can be unnecessarily complex, burdensome and protracted,” said CEQ chair Mary Neumayr. “A lengthy process can delay or even derail important projects to modernize our nation’s infrastructure, manage our federal lands and waters and restore our environment.”
The Environmental Law & Policy Center’s executive director said the current NEPA process gives the public a chance to learn about what effects federal projects will have on their area and gives them an opportunity to speak out against the project if its effect is undesirable.
“The Midwest public highly values safe clean water and healthy clean air. NEPA is vital for ensuring that energy and transportation projects are fully and fairly evaluated and the public has a chance to engage,” said ELPC executive director Howard A. Learner. “With this proposal, the Trump administration is limiting consideration of climate change realities and limiting public engagement.”
NEPA has allowed Hoosiers to learn how federal projects planned for construction in the state of Indiana will affect their surroundings and gives them outlets to speak out and shape future decisions made about the projects.
The Trump administration argued that the current process slows project approval down to a point where small improvements take decades to complete.
“In the past, many of America’s most critical infrastructure projects have been tied up and bogged down by an outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process,” said President Donald Trump. “The United States will not be able to compete and prosper in the 21st century if we continue to allow a broken and outdated bureaucratic system to hold us back from building what we need.”
One such project is the proposed $1.5 billion I-69 Ohio River Bridge, the plan to connect existing segments of Interstate 69 through a bridge between Henderson, Kentucky, and Evansville, Indiana.
The project has been in planning stages since 2001, but the delay was not due to bureaucratic processes. The project has been stuck in development for nearly 20 years due to restarts caused by funding problems.
In the early 2000s, federal and state agencies sought to find a spot for a crossing that would link segments of I-69, the roadway system that would connect Mexico and Canada through the U.S.
By 2004, the agencies had completed NEPA-mandated draft environmental impact statements and found 10 sites on the Kentucky-Indiana border that could meet the project’s needs and cause the least amount of stress to the environment.
The environmental impact statement assessed the project’s effect on animal life, wetland and streams, air and water quality, environmental justice, noise pollution and the presence of hazardous materials to narrow down the sites.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended the project include ways to direct highway stormwater, which often includes heavy metals, coolants and fecal coliform bacteria, into water treatment areas before it reaches the Ohio River. The agency also recommended the bridge project include bicycle and pedestrian lanes, considering the next available lanes are 100 miles away in Louisville.
The EPA also recommended that the bridge be designed to be more climate resilient, which would incorporate the likelihood of more frequent and extreme weather events.
Project heads had settled on a site for the 30.2-mile bridge project when it was suspended in 2005 due to a lack of funding.
When the project was revived in 2014, another environmental impact statement was required to select suitable sites. Four sites were selected as finalists.
Along the way, project heads held a series of public meetings for Henderson and Evansville residents to voice their opinions on the project and reached out to local press for additional dissemination.
Project heads say they are using the 570 comments received throughout the process to make their decision on the final version of the project. The record of decision, the final version of the project, is expected sometime this year.
Other vital projects in Indiana have gone through the NEPA process in much shorter time frames.
The West Lake Corridor Project, a nine-mile stretch of railroad linking Dyer and Hammond to an existing rail line to Chicago, took four years to go from inception to construction, including an environmental impact statement and public hearings.
The Fowler Ridge Wind Farm in Benton County took about five years to receive four separate permits.
Since 1987, 138 federal action of all types have gone through the NEPA process.
Granneman worries the Trump administration’s proposal may make taxpayers voiceless in the permitting process and force them to accept federal projects against their wishes.
“It is troubling that the administration is trying to limit public input on a proposed rule that would itself limit public input,” she said. “This is yet another threat to the Great Lakes region.”
Unless the CEQ extends the comment period, the public only has until March 10 to submit comments on the proposal. Comments can be submitted online, by fax at (202) 456-6546 or by mail. All comments submitted by fax or mail must include this agency name and docket number: CEQ-2019-0003-0001.