NEPA: The Most Important Law You've Never Heard Of

Within-the-Beltway-bubble debate about the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA is alarmingly over-the-top. Lobbyists and legislators in the Capitol often spout heated rhetoric bashing the law, unhinged from reality on-the-ground where it's mostly applied effectively such that road and transit project designs are improved. Lo and behold, on Monday a practitioner -- a senior official at Georgia's Department of Transportation -- penned an Atlanta Journal Constitution piece about the importance of NEPA. I am in agreement with his column. Environmental reviews are a crucial tool for moving transportation projects AND improving the environment. Here it is, reprinted with the author's permission, in its entirety:

NEPA is the guide star

Posted: 12:12 p.m. Monday, April 1, 2013 on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution web site here

By Glenn Bowman

Shortly after signing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law on New Year’s Day in 1970, President Richard Nixon discussed it in his State of the Union Address:

“The great question … is shall we make peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, our land and our water? … Clean air, clean water, open spaces — these should once again be the birthright of every American. … The price tag is high. Through our years of past carelessness, we have incurred a debt to nature. Now that debt is being called.”

Now, 43 years later, that price tag is even higher. Some old problems remain, and daunting new challenges loom. Still, NEPA’s impact is unquestionable; it remains the nation’s environmental guide star.

At Georgia’s Department of Transportation — the entity responsible for more earth work in this state than any other — NEPA has a huge impact on planning, designing and building transportation infrastructure. Virtually everything we do begins with “complying with the NEPA process.”

We must:

• Protect water quality, air quality, endangered plant and animal species and their habitats, migratory birds, wetlands, streams, rivers, harbors, flood plains, farmlands and the soil itself;

• Preserve historic and culturally significant buildings and places;

• Save archaeologically significant resources;

• Guard against noise pollution;

• Make certain native peoples and the disadvantaged are treated equitably;

• Mitigate for unavoidable impacts, and always engage the public in our decision-making process.

This requires a considerable investment in time, staff and money. Making a project NEPA-compliant sometimes requires re-routing; re-locating cemeteries and historic structures; and archaeological “digs” to recover important artifacts. We create or improve wetlands and streams to mitigate for like areas that need to be altered. We work with affected residents to help offset impacts to their neighborhoods and lives.

Recently, the need to study areas of North Georgia for the presence of the endangered Indiana and gray bats has garnered attention. Such examination simply is part of a process we are required by law to undertake for numerous plant and animal species, be they cuddly or creepy.

With as many as 700 projects ongoing at any time, not everyone is always going to be satisfied. But our foremost mission is to help make those 700 projects realities; keep motorists safe and moving, and grow that network as Georgia grows.

Meeting our transportation needs and protecting our environment are not mutually exclusive objectives; doing both does not have to be a contentious, adversarial struggle. Working together – internally, with partner agencies, businesses, local governments and citizens – we can repay our debt to nature, have a world-class transportation system, and preserve the beauty and many wonders of Georgia for generations to come.

Glenn Bowman is administrator of Georgia DOT’s Office of Environmental Services.

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