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White House Pushes For Environmental Review Exemptions
(Beyond Pesticides, October 17, 2003)
A White House task force issued a report last month containing proposals on how the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) may be streamlined and modernized. Controversial in the proposals is the inclusion of ways to simplify and expand the category of certain projects that are exempt from completing environmental impact reports.

In line with the Bush Administration's Clear Skies and Healthy Forests initiatives the NEPA task force proposed ways to "modernize" the environmental review process, which could result in an increase of exemptions of certain government and commercial projects, likely to include logging and forestry initiatives, energy exploration and transportation, from environmental reviews. Such exemptions are permitted in NEPA under a section of the law that allows for "categorical exemptions" when the "category of activity does not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment", according to the NEPA report.

According to a Washington Post article, the secretary of transportation was asked last year by President Bush to identify high-priority construction projects, including highways, airports, and others, that could benefit from "expedited" permits and other agency approvals.

An expansion of projects falling under "categorical exemption" in the areas potentially targeted by the Bush administration (construction, logging, energy exploration, and transportation), would directly impact the monitoring of chemical and pesticide use. Environmental inspections and impact assessments, which collect and evaluate data on substances that may be hazardous to human health and/or the environment, often account for the proper use, storage, and disclosure of hazardous chemicals as well as their proper removal and disposal, according to environmental assessment associations and experts.

Since its landmark establishment in 1969, the laws of NEPA have changed the way the government and people think about the environment and for the first time required all federal agencies and any commercial projects funded by federal monies to integrate environmental impact assessments into their decision-making processes. An integral part of the process includes the consideration of less-harmful alternatives and public review and comments.

"'This administration has actively supported greatly expanding the list of activities that would be put in this category because once it's in this category you don't have the 'nuisance' of public participation,'" said Robert B. Smythe, an environmental consultant and former White House official under Ford and Carter, according to the Post article.

Senior Attorney for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sharon Buccino supported this view. "'Modernizing' the key law that ensures public participation in federal environmental policy is a code word for shutting the public out," says Buccino on the NRDC website.

Activities in Congress appear to be lending promise to the changes proposed for NEPA, reports the Post. Legislation to exempt energy exploration from environmental impact reports on American Indian tribal lands is currently being considered and in the Senate, negotiations are in process to exempt "fuel-reduction" activities, such as tree-thinning, in national forests from environmental analysis. Expedition of court reviews, which would quell lawsuits against the Forest Service by environmental groups, is also being considered.

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), whose Chairman, Mr. James Connaughton - a Bush appointee and former industry lobbyist with ties to mining companies and the Chemical Manufacturers Association - approved the NEPA task force. Mr. Connaughton denies charges that the task force aims to weaken NEPA. "Our goal is to integrate NEPA practices with newer concepts of management, such as environmental management systems and advancing information technologies," he said in July 2002.

Environmentalists and others have praised some of the proposals that include updating technology, standardizing "best practices" and using consistent management systems, according to the Post. But it is the expansion or "streamlining" of categorical exemptions that have environmentalists worried.

NEPA and its implementation has changed very little over the years and critics fear that a single crack in the door may lead to further widening of the law in years to come, with potentially far-reaching consequences. According to John Krist of the Environmental News Network, NEPA has been hailed as, "'the most widely copied American law in all history'" with 80 or more countries having copied parts or all of NEPA and adopted similar statutes requiring environmental assessments.

For more information, see:

Present challenges to NEPA in areas of energy, forests, water, transportation, and grazing.
Organic Farmers in Oregon Organizing to Stop Boise Cascade's use of Herbicide
Certain
NEPA Exemptions Utilized