Few States Self-Police with Environmental Impact Laws

By: - December 3, 2003 12:00 am

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has become the bedrock of U.S. environmental policy since President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1970. It requires all federal agencies to evaluate the impact of their actions on the environment, and offers a handy model for environmental regulation in the states.

It is a model relatively few states have chosen to emulate, however, amid strong resistance from industries and developers that stand to be regulated.

Like the federal law, State Environmental Quality Acts “SEQAs”, or “little NEPAs” — require state, county and municipal governments to consider the environmental impact of their actions and decisions. If a state project, such as a new highway, may significantly affect the environment, the agency in charge prepares an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and the project undergoes a public review process.

Only sixteen states have enacted SEQAs, most in the 1970s and 1980s. They are Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. The Pennsylvania legislature is currently considering a SEQA.

Environmentalists say these statutes are necessary for state projects, like roads and buildings, that can cause serious environmental degradation if not carefully analyzed. Regulated industries have lobbied to weaken SEQAs, saying the public comment process stifles growth by allowing interest groups to derail development projects.

The review process, or EIS, must evaluate the possible environmental consequences of a project and identify ways to reduce potential impacts or offer alternatives to the proposed action. The lead agency behind a project is responsible for performing the EIS, but some of the cost is often passed on to the contractor or builder. SEQAs also give the public affected by state and local projects a say in the process.

“These statutes first and foremost allow the public to participate and have a voice in projects that affect the quality of their environment. States that don’t have (SEQAs) are losing the opportunity for public input,” Bill Craven, chief of staff on California’s Senate Natural Resource Committee, said.

California was the first state to create a little NEPA when it passed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in 1970.

Craven said CEQA is the foundation on which California’s strong environmental protections are based, including laws to reduce smog, cut vehicle emissions, conserve public space and protect endangered species.

“I think CEQA has done its job and set the stage for California being regarded a national leader in environmental protection,” he said.

CEQA has undergone many changes over its 33-year history to update the law and avoid redundancies, Craven said. Timber harvests, for example, are now exempt from state environmental reviews because logging companies are heavily regulated by the state.

Recently, the legislature exempted affordable housing projects from CEQA review to help speed housing developments. Public schools and projects mandated by the legislature are also exempt from CEQA environmental review.

Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) is considered one of the broadest state environmental acts in the country, covering both government and private projects, said Barbara Ritchie, SEPA supervisor in Washington’s Department of Ecology.

Any project that requires a permit, from adding a new addition to a house to razing a city block to build condominiums, is subject to Washington’s environmental review process.

Most projects do not require a full review, or EIS, Ritchie said. Her office processes about 8,000 reviews a year from over 1,700 state, county and local agencies.

Regulated industries in Washington say SEPA regulations slow growth and discourage business investment in the state. Hardest hit are small contractors, who cannot afford to perform environmental reviews and as a result lose projects to larger conglomerates.

“We see SEPA as unnecessary because SEPA came in place long before we had any other substantive environmental regulations on the book,” said Jodi Slavik, chief lobbyist for Building Industry Association of Washington, said.

In Washington, local governments can create their own environmental restrictions and most communities have passed “smart growth” laws and other statutes that govern new developments. Most of these laws perform the same function as SEPA, which adds needless barriers to development, Slavik said.

“The problems we have are redundant processes covering the same projects, and neighborhood and environmental groups use the SEPA process to kill the projects they oppose,” she said.

Most states with SEQAs exempt projects that fall under federal jurisdiction and NEPA review, but some environmental groups are promoting SEQAs as a way to counter what they allege are damaging environmental rollbacks by President Bush’s administration. A White House panel issued recommendations last month aimed at streamlining NEPA’s public review process and expanding the types of projects exempt from review.

“Our environmental quality is degrading day by day across this country,” said Susan George, state counsel for Defenders of Wildlife. “We’re losing land and habitat in increasing amounts as the Bush Administration rolls back clean air and water provisions.” George helped write a model SEQA law for state legislatures released by the State Environmental Resource Center last month.

“It’s incumbent upon the states, which have a huge amount of authority over citizens’ quality of life, to protect that quality any way they can, and assessing the environmental impact of state actions makes sense,” she said.

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