The power of NEPA: Communities’ chance to weigh in on federal projects

Sign reads "CAUTION - contamination area" in foreground of industrial site at the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) project in Moab, Utah

Site of a project in Moab, Utah, to relocate radioactive mill tailings away from the Colorado River

Kelly Michals, Flickr

NEPA lets communities weigh in on federal projects

When a uranium mill site near Moab, Utah, closed its doors in the 1980s, the management company proposed to store millions of tons of radioactive uranium tailings on the banks of the Colorado River. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission initially said the tailings wouldn’t hurt the environment, but the local community was concerned. They suspected the waste would endanger most of the Colorado River’s watershed and threaten the drinking water of millions of people.

Banding together with non-profit advocacy groups, the community rallied against the project. Thanks in part to public comments gathered under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Department of Energy developed a plan to move the tailings to a secure, multilayered disposal cell 32 miles away, far from a major body of water. 

Ten years later, the massive cleanup project is still ongoing, but we’ve learned even more about the health threats posed by uranium tailings. Without NEPA, it’s possible we’d be looking back at an uninterrupted decade of radioactive waste leaching into the water supply and making people sick in nearby communities.

Last year, this important legislation—which has given the public a voice on destructive actions like this one for 50 years—came under attack. On Sept. 14 of 2020, the Trump administration put into effect regulations that essentially gutted NEPA. The news came after a separate executive order which allowed federal agencies to ignore NEPA and other laws so they could speed up projects like mines, highways and pipelines. 

Luckily, the Biden administration has recently begun the process to undo some of the most harmful attacks on the law. While this is a step in the right direction, there is much more work that still needs to be done to fully restore and modernize NEPA so that it can once again accomplish its original purpose.

For 50 years, NEPA has required the government to consider how a project will affect the environment and local communities and has given the people who will have to live with the consequences a fair chance to weigh in. It has required that agencies explain and justify their plan—offering it up for public scrutiny, considering alternative options, accepting feedback about it and analyzing potential impacts.

Last year's changes, like other attacks on NEPA, stand to especially impact communities with less access to financial and legal resources. To understand why, let’s take a look at how this crucial and little-discussed law works.

How public input is supposed to happen under NEPA

The NEPA process is designed to offer the public several opportunities to be involved in deciding an outcome.

Say a federal agency wants to start a project—building a road, damming a river or even approving a permit for a company to drill on publicly owned property. Unless the project falls into a category of routine actions already known not to significantly affect the environment (think mowing the lawn or filling in potholes), the agency will prepare a report called an Environmental Assessment that basically summarizes the likely consequences of that project. If it seems like those consequences will be significant, the agency moves on to prepare a more detailed report.

This is the part of the process where the public plays an especially important role, beginning with what is called “scoping.” That’s when an agency solicits input—for example, through public meetings or online comments—about what specific environmental impacts the government should be considering (in other words, the “scope” of the review) and what alternative courses of action should be on the table. After the agency considers that input, it conducts a full environmental review and produces draft findings in an Environmental Impact Statement. The draft Environmental Impact Statement is once again subjected to public review and comment before the agency arrives at a final report and makes a decision about which course of action to take.

It can be a complicated process, but the bottom line is that you, the people, are supposed to have a bunch of chances to raise your concerns before a backhoe or drilling rig ever touches the ground.

NEPA makes agencies look before they leap

In short, NEPA requires the federal government to “look before it leaps.” If an agency wants to widen a highway, log a forest or store toxic waste in the banks of a river, it must first both formally consider how that project will affect the environment and make sure nearby communities—the people who will have to live with the consequences—get a fair chance to weigh in on whether it’s a good idea.

It’s been a critically important tool for our democracy, ensuring transparency and accountability from large and complicated decision-making entities that could all too easily operate independent of what actually affects people “on the ground.”

The Trump administration's attacks on NEPA have left many communities exposed to harm. The Biden administration has begun the process to reverse three of these attacks, but we still have a long way to go to restore and modernize this critical environmental law. Now more than ever, we’re committed to standing up for NEPA and ensuring the public keeps its voice.