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January 6, 2006


Party Links Environmental Law to Delay, Paperwork, Lawsuits

[Rachel's introduction: While our attention is focused on the Iraq
war, Congressional scandals and global warming, Republicans are busy
rewriting the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the basic
U.S. environmental law that requires the federal government to
consider consequences, and alternatives, before spending our money.
Can this be good?]

By Juliet Eilperin

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

"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

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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