Engaging the Public Builds Collaboration and Communities

When the CSX Corp. wanted to relocate an existing transportation hub in downtown Baltimore to Elkridge, Maryland, it triggered a federal environmental review to assess the impact that a new 24/7 operation visited by 300 trucks a day would have on the small city.

Following extensive public comment—where Elkridge citizens raised alarm that the facility would be too close to a planned middle school and would undermine quality of life and the environment—CSX moved on and now is planning to build on a rail yard site in South Baltimore.

The result: a community’s integrity will be protected and CSX looks to begin construction this fall on an intermodal facility that is one of the top priorities for Baltimore’s mayor.

This win-win is among many arising from one of the nation’s best but not best known laws, the National Environmental Policy Act. Since NEPA, known as the “green Magna Carta,” won strong bipartisan congressional support and was signed into law by President Nixon 40 years ago, it has protected our health, environment and right to be heard.

Its premise is straightforward. When the government undertakes or approves a major project such as a dam or, highway project, it must make sure the project’s impacts, environmental and otherwise, are considered.  In many cases NEPA gives the public its only opportunity to be heard about the project’s impact on their community.  Usually, the assessment helps usher in compromises that repeatedly have led to better designed projects with less impact and more public support.

Today, however, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is trying so hard to get a Water Resources Development Act bill approved that she’s agreed once again to the anti-environment agenda to weaken NEPA by her Environment Committee’s ranking member, Sen. David Vitter, R-LA.—this time for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water projects.

This presents a rare example of when bipartisanship can go astray to advance bad policy.

The WRDA bill, which the Senate is poised to take up soon, contains weakening language based on a major transportation bill Congress passed that essentially exempted 97 percent of highway projects from compliance with NEPA.

The  bill would modify NEPA by setting short deadlines for completing environmental reviews and place monetary penalties on agencies who are not keeping up to the Corps of Engineers schedule which will unavoidably bias federal officials toward rubber-stamping projects to avoid harsh new fines in the bill.

Even worse, it allows states to apply these fast-track procedures to state law.

The proponents wave away such concerns saying they are only trying to “streamline” NEPA. But in fact, they are steamrolling over the public’s right to know about, and to participate in, government decisions. Ironically, there is no evidence that NEPA is the cause of Corps project delay – the delays are caused by lack of funds for projects and other requirements unrelated to NEPA.

The full Senate should reject this attempt to undermine NEPA when the Water Resources Development Act is debated in the floor. Members of the Senate should come together and remove the new NEPA language in order to protect the voices of their constituents and the values of our country.

NEPA’s common sense approach to foster discussion and collaboration about major development projects has worked well to protect our national treasures and resources.

Let’s look at one more example of how. When the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed in 2007, the tragedy captured nationwide attention. National, state, regional and local agencies, along with the Minnesota public, wanted the state’s fifth busiest bridge rebuilt, and fast.

The NEPA process brought everyone together. A full normal environmental review took place on the replacement bridge project, which went up in record time, just over a year.

Today, thanks to NEPA, tens of thousands of people are able again to travel quickly and safely over the Mississippi River. NEPA, too, works as it stands, and it should stay that way.


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