Why Post-Disaster Rebuilding Should Comply with Environmental Safeguards

Over the years, our nation has seen its share of natural disasters that have wreaked havoc upon our infrastructure.  Often, these events require us to pick up the pieces and rebuild.  But, in doing so, should we really be throwing out the rule book and ignoring laws intended to protect us and our planet?

Sen. Nelson (D-NE) seems to think so.  An amendment he inserted into to the Senate Transportation Appropriations bill (S. 1596) on Wednesday, exempts the rebuilding of roads, highways, and bridges damaged by natural disasters from a variety of environmental reviews, including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.  The amendment is similar to a bill Sen. Nelson introduced in July

Rebuilding after a natural disaster is obviously of paramount importance.  But let’s be reasonable here—it’s possible to respond quickly to emergency situations while complying with our nation’s laws.  We know this because we’ve done it!   Indeed, time and time again, states have successfully rebuilt after natural disasters while complying with environmental laws.  For example, when a natural disaster led to a bridge collapse in Minnesota, its reconstruction complied fully with environmental laws and still set record times for completion!  

Instead of rebuilding in a responsible manner, this amendment would allow contractors to disregard basic safeguards, thereby threatening the environment and human health.  Need to replace a bridge damaged by a hurricane? This provision could be read to unwisely permit companies to dump the old bridge, covered with 30 years of oil and grease, into the river below, instead of disposing of it properly. 

Not only would this amendment harm people and the environment, but it would do so unnecessarily since most of the laws it targets provide for exemptions and/or expedited processes for post-disaster rebuilding.  For example, the Endangered Species Act and its regulations contain many provisions that enable agencies to protect people and property in emergency situations, including an exemption from formal consultation in life-threatening emergencies.  Similarly, the Clean Water Act  generally exempts “emergency reconstruction of recently damaged” infrastructure from one permit program and provides for fast-track permitting for a variety of activities; specifically, the Army Corps has such a permit for repair of previously authorized structures, and Sen. Nelson’s own state of Nebraska has a generic permit that avoids case-by-case review for discharges from construction sites.

In order to respond to emergencies rapidly, sometimes post-disaster reconstruction must be fast-tracked.  But by refusing to recognize that it’s possible to do this while complying with environmental laws, this amendment fails to strike the appropriate balance between disaster response and environmental protection.  Environmental laws are reasonable because they allow for flexibility in times of disaster.  But an amendment that puts post-disaster rebuilding above everything else is not.