A GOP Key to Unlocking NEPA

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006

House Republicans are hoping to rewrite one of the nation's most sweeping environmental laws --in a way that could change how the government gauges the impact of its actions on the land, sea and air.

For 36 years the government has relied on the National Environmental Policy Act to serve as a check on federal activities that have a "significant impact" on the environment. The law requires federal officials to determine whether such things as highway construction and flood-control projects will alter the surrounding landscape. And it allows citizens to challenge the government's conclusions. Its scope is so broad, the government conducts 50,000 "environmental assessments" a year.

"There's a reason they call it the Magna Carta of environmental law," said Rep. Tom Udall (N.M.), who served as the top Democrat on the House task force that examined the law. "NEPA is the most important environmental statute, because it involves the public."

But Republicans such as Rep. Cathy McMorris (Wash.), who chaired the 20-member task force, said the law had led to "delays, excessive paperwork and lawsuits" even as it helped guide the government. Late last month her staff released a 30-page report, which is subject to public comment for 45 days, suggesting possible fixes.

"I'm hoping we can find some common ground and move forward," McMorris said in an interview, adding that the report should serve "as a beginning point for discussion."

The GOP staff report, which was based on seven public hearings lawmakers held across the country, proposes setting mandatory deadlines for completing environmental assessments, giving greater weight to comments by local interests, seeing if federal efforts duplicate state evaluations of government activities, and defining more precisely what constitutes a "major federal action" under the law.

"After carefully reviewing the testimony and comments, it is clear [NEPA] is a valid and functional law in many respects," the staff wrote. "However there are elements . . . that are causing enough uncertainty to warrant modest improvements and modifications to both the statute and its regulations. To do nothing would be a disservice to all stakeholders who participate in the NEPA process."

Several environmentalists questioned the conclusions, noting that of the 50,000 annual government environmental reviews, only 0.2 percent led to lawsuits. They noted that the Clinton and Bush administrations had assessed how the law was working, and both concluded the problems stemmed from inadequate implementation, not the act itself.

Deborah K. Sease, legislative director for the Sierra Club, said the language in the report was so "vague, you open the door to undermining the principles of NEPA."

Each side can point to the law's virtues and faults.

Environmentalists note that scientists last year announced the rediscovery of the presumed-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker along the Cache River, which the Army Corps of Engineers planned to dredge until citizens challenged the Corps' environmental analysis and blocked the flood-control project.

Mike Leahy, a staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, said the existing law relies on a "look before you leap" principle that forces the government to consider alternatives to environmentally damaging actions.

But some timber companies say they have not been able to salvage trees felled by forest fires in time because of the government's elaborate regulations under NEPA.

McMorris said the report, if written into law, would not amount to a radical overhaul of the existing rules. "It's building upon what has already been written into law," she said. "After 35 years, I think it's very appropriate to look at how the act is working and ask the question 'Can the process be improved?' "

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