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Protecting the Environment and Engaging the Public

Aug 24, 2018

Pop quiz: what’s one of the most wonky but essential ways to ensure that the environmental impacts of big infrastructure projects are thoroughly considered? The answer: use a systematic interdisciplinary approach to federal coordination of individual agency evaluations of environmental implications associated with planning and decision making!

If that response is even more esoteric than you thought, the truth is that the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, is just as important as it is bureaucratic-sounding. And, with a letter we just submitted to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the Port of Seattle is not only defending NEPA against potentially negative changes by the Trump Administration but actually working to make it even more comprehensive and impactful.

A little history

NEPA was enacted in 1970 as a way to require that all federal agencies report — and potentially address — the environmental effects of proposed federal agency actions. One of the more underappreciated aspects of the Act is that it not only allows for specific environmental considerations but engages the general public more broadly in these decisions. Local residents have valuable information about the places and resources that they value and the potential environmental, social, and economic effects that such actions may have.

As a public sector entity, the Port of Seattle is committed to the same goals that serve as the foundation for NEPA: maximizing the engagement of local residents, and providing the strongest possible environmental protections. The Port has even mirrored this commitment within our own decision making by developing a Sustainability Evaluation Framework to transparently document environmental, economic, and societal considerations associated with our actions.

Environmental protection modernization

This relatively obscure topic became more pressing this summer when the Trump Administration published a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Implementation of Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act” that asked 20 questions about ways to meet the President’s goal of “streamlining” the federal permitting process. Although additional efficiencies in the CEQ regulations could be beneficial, the Port strongly believes that any changes must balance the modernization of NEPA with strong commitments to environmental protection and community engagement. NEPA must first and foremost continue to serve as our basic national charter to protect the environment. Just opening NEPA to amendments from this Administration and Congress jeopardizes the integrity of this fundamental environmental law.

I’m pleased to share our response to this proposed rulemaking that not only clearly and emphatically focused on that last point, but took the opportunity to encourage CEQ to modernize NEPA in ways that actually increase environmental protection. In particular, we want the federal government to 1) adopt guidelines regarding climate change and greenhouse gas-related impacts of proposed federal actions; 2) incorporate the concepts of “sustainability” or “sustainable development” into the CEQ regulations; and 3) formalize the need to consider environmental justice in NEPA analysis. These are concepts that are no-brainers to us here in the Pacific Northwest, so it is more than timely for the federal government to join us in adopting them.

For the Port, the need for environmentally sustainable development and operations is not a nice-to-have, but rather a core requirement of our “license to operate” as a public sector organization. As environmental stewards, we embrace our responsibility to our constituents, to the livability of this region, and to the future. Even though NEPA makes for a boring blog post topic, it just may be one of the keys to maintaining that federal commitment made in 1970 to “encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment.” The Port also complies with the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), but I’ll leave the explanation of that fundamental law for a future blog.

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