tweaking key environmental act
Critics: Exceptions will weaken
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
- 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
''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,
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.