Exploring the National Environmental Policy Act
Thursday, December 15, 2011
By Vince Siragusa
To various degrees, the American people and regulatory bodies have always had an appreciation for humanity’s effect on nature’s well-being. Beginning in the late 1960s, and continuing today, we have successfully created numerous laws and expectations that formalize the notion that a federally-funded project to promote human progress must not come at the expense of environmental, historic, and cultural resources.
As one of our first laws establishing a national framework for environmental protecting, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) can be thought of as the grandparent of today’s regulations. The concisely-written (at least by today's standards) 3,000-word Act remains to this day, a breath of fresh air.
Over the course of the current federal grant process, NEPA’s goals remain basic—to ensure that federal agencies afford the necessary consideration to environmental factors, in addition to the financial, technical, and programmatic factors that also play a role in the funding process. More specifically, NEPA directs federal agencies to thoroughly assess the environmental consequences of "major federal actions significantly affecting the environment." To that end, all federal agencies are required to prepare detailed statements assessing the impact of their actions on the environment, as well as proposing alternatives.
Because NEPA is a procedural law and does not require a specific outcome, each federal agency is required to write their own NEPA compliance regulations to fit their particular grant programs. But while NEPA requirements may differ slightly between a Department of Education and the Department of Homeland Security, the basic analytical underpinnings remain steadfast. For many homeland security projects, understanding and planning for these requirements now will facilitate a more streamlined grant application process in the future.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is actually quite clear in its policy to include environmental considerations when supporting emergency preparedness and response activities. In fact, before FEMA can fund any action that may affect the environment, the potential impact of the proposed project must be studied and shared. Much of that consideration is done through the regulatory eyes of the Environmental Planning and Historic Preservation (EHP) Program which uses NEPA to address applicable regulations.
Because some projects are categorically excluded from NEPA review and other actions have varying degrees of environmental impact, there are multiple levels of project review or analysis to successfully navigate:
- Categorical Exclusions (CATEX) - An undertaking may be categorically excluded from a detailed environmental analysis if it meets certain criteria indicating there will be no significant environmental impact. In this case, the project will be excluded from further environmental evaluation under NEPA regulations.
- Environmental Assessment (EA) - The purpose of an EA is to summarize the project’s purpose and need, evaluate the potential impacts of a proposed project, and explore project alternatives in order to determine if the proposed action will have significant impact on the environment and/or lead to public controversy. An EA will result in a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) if the evaluation of the proposed action and public review period find no potential for significant adverse effects to the human or natural environment. If the EA determines that the environmental consequences of a proposed federal undertaking may be significant, an EIS is prepared.
- Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) - As the third level of analysis, an EIS is a more detailed evaluation of the proposed action and alternative and mitigation measures that will avoid adverse impacts. The public, other federal agencies, and outside parties may provide input into the preparation of an EIS and then comment on the draft EIS when it is completed.
Armed with the understanding that the FEMA EHP review can take months to complete, grantees should proactively accommodate EHP requirements by incorporating sufficient time and resources into the project planning process. January’s FUNDED publication will contain additional information on the grant applicant’s role in the NEPA review process.