NEPA In a Nutshell

A concise piece of federal legislation, enacted in 1970 and referred to as the nation's environmental charter, is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (42 United States Code 4321 et. seq.). This law established a national environmental policy with goals to protect, maintain and enhance the physical and natural environment and the relationship of people with that environment. NEPA provides federal agencies with a roadmap to environmental decision making and also influences environmental decision making on a variety of private sector projects.

NEPA created a staff of personal environmental advisors to the president known as the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The CEQ conducts studies, gathers information and produces annual reports relative to our nation's environmental quality. The CEQ oversees the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) planning and policy making. The CEQ also oversees compliance with NEPA's environmental impact statement requirements.

Before a major federal action can be approved, it must first assess potential environmental impacts. Major federal actions include new or revised federal agency rules, regulations, policies, plans and procedures. Major federal actions also include permitting of such projects as hydroelectric plants, nuclear reactors and interstate pipelines. Even private sector projects using federal funds or located on federal land must engage in the environmental impact evaluation process.

Basically, a proposed NEPA/CEQ regulated activity must determine if the action is categorically excluded. Categorical exclusions exempt actions, which do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the environment.

Proposed NEPA/CEQ regulated activities that may have a significant environmental effect must prepare a concise public document providing sufficient evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) or a finding of no significant impact (FONSI). The concise public document is the environmental assessment (EA). The EA serves as a pre-test for an EIS or FONSI.

If the proposed activity's EA reveals significant environmental effects, an EIS will have to be prepared. The EIS process requires public notice, public comment and a record of decision on:

  • the environmental impact of the proposed activity;
  • any adverse environmental effects which can not be avoided should the proposed activity be implemented;
  • alternatives to the proposed activity;
  • the relationship between local and short term uses of the environment and the maintenance and enhancement of long term productivity; and
  • any irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources which would be involved in the proposed activity should it be implemented.

The EIS may require a review, consideration and statement of environmental impacts relative, but not limited to:

  • Air quality (emissions, ambient air, navigable air space, ambient noise, etc.);
  • Water (effluent quality, drainage, supply, use, etc.);
  • Land use (farm land, timber land, park lands, zoning, community plans, etc.);
  • Landforms (topography, wetlands, flood plains, coastal zones, shorelines, etc.);
  • Hazardous substances (site contamination, explosives, pesticide use, etc.);
  • Wastes (solid, hazardous, radioactive, mixed, etc.);
  • Subsurface (soils, underground storage tanks, seismic, underground injection, groundwater, etc.);
  • Wildlife (threatened or endangered species, vegetation, ecologically critical areas, etc.);
  • Cultural (historic, archaeological, architectural, controversial, etc.);
  • Utilities/services (energy, fuel, etc.); and/or
  • Transportation (public transit, traffic circulation, parking, etc.

When going through the environmental impact statement process, pay particular attention to the selection of alternatives. Alternatives, including the no action alternative, can provide cost-effective ways to protect, maintain and enhance our environment.

This article appeared in the March 2001 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 12, No. 3, on page 38.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2001 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Sultan I. Amer, PhD, is president of Aquachem Inc., Canton, Mich.

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