Stakes High As Public Comment Period Closes On NEPA Reforms

Mar 10, 2020
Originally published on March 11, 2020 4:32 pm

The deadline is tonight to submit public comment on sweeping changes to one of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws.

In 2017, the Trump Administration ordered the White House Council on Environmental Quality to suggest changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, the law that requires federal agencies to look at environmental impacts when making decisions.

The proposed changes, as High Country News has reported, “would ‘streamline’ reviews, according to the administration, and, most notably, ‘clarify that effects should not be considered significant if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the result of a lengthy causal chain.’”

Industry groups such as the Utah Cattlemen’s Association have called the proposed changes a “huge win,” while one environmental justice advocate, speaking at a recent public hearing in Washington, D.C., called NEPA “a bible” that protects communities across the country by allowing them to challenge the environmental impact of proposed federal projects.

Kym Hunter, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the nonprofit filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all documents related to the changes so it could submit an informed comment.

“That was 18 months ago — we submitted our FOIA request in September 2018 and we still do not have the majority of the documents,” Hunter said.

Because of the delay, SELC filed a motion asking a federal judge to allow for a longer public comment period on the administration's proposed changes. But this week, the judge ruled against that motion.

 

Hunter said the ruling has implications not just for NEPA, but also for future FOIA requests. Her firm is now considering an appeal.

“This isn’t just about the case. It’s about FOIA and whether it has any use, because if you can just delay responding to a FOIA request until the documents are essentially useless, then the law doesn’t have as much meaning anymore,” Hunter said.

A spokesperson for the White House Council on Environmental Quality said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.

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