WASHINGTON (CN) — President Donald Trump announced significant changes Wednesday to a longstanding law that forces the government to pump the brakes on projects at risk of hurting the environment.
The move was expected after he signed an executive order last month directing the White House Council on Environmental Quality to otherwise ease up permitting regulations in the face of the new coronavirus pandemic.
Initially, however, the White House indicated it would modify the legislation known as NEPA, short for the National Environmental Policy Act, in January.
Trump announced the overhaul during a Wednesday visit to the UPS Hapeville Airport Hub in Atlanta — an event that often appeared more like a campaign rally for the 2020 election as Trump asserted without evidence that mail-in voting, as compared to in-person voting, is more fraud prone.
But on the proposed change to the National Environmental Policy Act, the president said: “I’ve been wanting to do this since day one but it takes a long time. It takes statutory requirements and different roadblocks.”
The remarks followed a minutes-long lamentation on the “mountains of bureaucratic red tape” that developers in various industries face when they build and are forced to meet environmental regulatory standards.
“We just completed an unprecedent top-to-bottom overhaul, should have been done years of ago. The infrastructure approval process has cost trillions and delays like you wouldn’t believe,” Trump said. “This means better roads, bridges, tunnels and highways for every UPS driver.”
NEPA — which has been in place for over 50 years — mandates that environmental review is conducted on national infrastructure projects such as oil and gas pipelines, power plants or the construction of highways long before they are initiated.
This review period is known as “scoping,” offering the public a chance to both comment on a project and evaluate its potential risks or impact, and to negotiate on possible alternatives with whatever company or entity is spearheading a project.
On average, environmental impact statements take four years to complete. The Trump administration’s new rule accelerates the review process by defining a two-year time limit for assessments.
While the White House says modifications to NEPA is a boon for the U.S. economy because “unnecessary regulatory delays” hinder national economic recovery from the pandemic, critics blasted the maneuver as yet another workaround by the Trump administration to unwind key environmental protections, put the public health at risk and heap favor on the fossil fuel industry.
The administration’s “streamlining” of NEPA also features rules stipulating that the number of topics explored by the public in a given comment period are limited. Considerations on the “cumulative effect” of a project go away altogether under the revised rule. This last modification, environmentalists argue, is a way for the administration to quietly remove consideration of climate change being weighed in the assessment process for developers.
Among those opposing the changes are Democratic lawmakers on the Senate Environmental Justice Caucus and its companion body known as the House United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force.
In a letter to the White House last week, the groups expressed concern that the Trump administration failed to consider how its proposal ostensibly twists the knife deeper on Americans who historically bear the brunt of deregulatory fallout: communities of color, the poor, and tribal and indigenous groups.
A study published last month by the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, a nonprofit based in Chicago, found that a whopping 70% of the nation’s superfund sites — where the country’s most hazardous waste is dumped — were within just one mile from public housing.
“A confluence of historic policies and practices have encouraged the construction of federally assisted housing in areas of environmental contamination — and have also encouraged polluting industries to be built near existing low-income housing,” the Shriver Center reported.
Other studies like one completed last year by Earthjustice confirm similar findings in relation to coal-ash sites where toxic remnants from coal-fired power plants are held.
According to Earthjustice, at 6 of the 10 most-contaminated coal-ash sites in the nation, the populations living nearby are majority Black.
In Memphis, Tennessee — a state that is 64% Black, according to the U.S. Census — 100% of those who live near the Allen Fossil Plant there are Black.
“Environmental justice communities already have limited access and ability to participate in federal policy decisions due to the numerous economic, physical, racial, and health barriers they face. They fight to be heard when industrial projects threaten their health and well-being,” senators and House lawmakers wrote to Trump on July 9. “Under the new rules, companies will be permitted to conduct their own Environmental Impact Statement. This is an affront to environmental justice communities whose only recourse is often the public input afforded to them during NEPA's current approval process.”
One senator who signed the letter, Tom Carper, is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. A Delaware Democrat, Carper said Wednesday that common sense alone should compel the Trump administration to embrace NEPA during a global pandemic.
Though the president wishes to speed things up by paring the law back, Carper said the move instead opens the door to more litigation that will distract agencies from other priorities.
“Agencies across the government will have to go through an extensive public review and comment process before updating their existing NEPA practices and procedures,” Carper said in a statement Wednesday. “This highly divisive, harmful and partisan rollback will not last.”
Trump on Wednesday tied his announcement to the promise of developing U.S. highways and transportation initiatives, but Alison Flint, the senior legal director of the Wilderness Society, told Courthouse News that NEPA is also a hugely critical tool to protecting wildlife.
“While the Endangered Species Act, which the Trump administration has also weakened, protects species listed as threatened or endangered, NEPA protects all species by requiring agencies to do a science-based analysis of the impacts on wildlife and its habitat that road-building, logging, mining, oil and gas drilling and a host of other actions will have,” Flint said.
She also emphasized that the policy gives voice to scientists.
“NEPA ultimately forces better decision-making because agencies must consider ways to avoid and minimize impacts to wildlife,” she said. “Under the rollbacks in this rule, many agency actions will escape review altogether. But even those actions that are still subject to review will suffer from a lack of full analysis and public input.”
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