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Great Lakes Article:

Bush tweaking key environmental act
Critics: Exceptions will weaken law

Miami Herald

Posted 10/07/2002

WASHINGTON - Bit by bit, the Bush administration is carving out exceptions to a law that is widely regarded as the legal cornerstone of environmental protection.

The law is the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. It requires the government to study systematically all environmental impacts that a federal project would have, weigh alternatives and take public comments into account before going forward.

NEPA's requirement for ''environmental-impact statements'' has resulted in the delay, cancellation or alteration of many federal projects over the years -- such as roads, dams and airports -- in the name of protecting nature from unnecessary despoilment.

The policy is ''the Magna Carta of all the environmental laws,'' said University of Vermont law Professor Patrick Parenteau. It is now the model for more than 100 other nations.

But in the name of improving efficiency, the Bush administration wants to change the way the policy works. Environmental groups say the proposed changes amount to a devastating attack on the law.

In the past three months alone, Bush has proposed the following changes to the law:

- His Healthy Forests Initiative would exempt logging in certain fire-prone federal forests from the NEPA process.

- The administration argued in federal court that the act doesn't apply to military projects outside U.S. territorial waters but within 200 miles of the U.S. shoreline. A federal judge ruled last month against the Bush administration's argument that environmental-impact statements were not required for Navy sonar tests that environmental groups say harm sea life.

- The president issued an executive order in September to begin a faster environmental-impact statement process for a set of unidentified transportation projects that the administration deems high priority.

In addition, Congress is considering bills -- filed by Republicans and Democrats -- that would ''streamline'' the environmental-impact statement process for specific projects, such as the expansion of runways at Chicago's O'Hare airport and an electrical generating plant in Arizona. Another bill would give environmental agencies and organizations only 30 days to comment on the environmental impacts of transportation projects.

Finally, some environmentalists fear that the White House Council on Environmental Quality may be moving toward even more sweeping changes in the law. The council has nearly completed a study by a special NEPA task force that is aimed at ''improving'' the environmental-impact statement process, which could include drafting new regulations.

''It's a concerted attack on NEPA,'' said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who co-wrote the law in 1969.

James Connaughton, who oversees the policy as chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, denies the charge. He said the administration was trying to make an important and effective environmental law better.

''Nothing's been chipped away; the NEPA statute is still there,'' Connaughton said in an interview with The Herald. ''There are very few proposed changes to the NEPA process in the agencies,'' and to the extent they are looking at it, ``they're just trying to improve them. . . . It's a critically important tool, actually.''

The biggest controversy stems from the forest initiative's proposed exemptions to the law. The idea is that, to reduce fire hazards, timber companies would be permitted to chop down trees in areas near homes that are prone to wildfires. Instead of filing individual NEPA statements for each forest, the government would issue only one massive forest-thinning plan.

Current and former federal attorneys who deal in these issues say exempting some forests from the process is troubling.

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