Tribes ‘cannot afford to lose’ the National Environmental Policy Act

Woman holds ‘Defend NEPA’ sign at rally after public hearing on February 25, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kolby KickingWoman)

Kolby KickingWoman

‘NEPA is one of the only avenues for tribal members to have any input on federal actions’

“Look before you leap.”

A phrase that can describe the National Environmental Policy Act in the simplest terms and something that was heard throughout the Council for Environmental Quality’s public hearing Tuesday morning at the Department of Interior building in Washington, D.C.

People from across the country showed up to voice their opposition to potential rollbacks of the act that makes sure the federal government and agencies consider impacts to the environment for infrastructure projects like highways, pipelines and other similar ventures.

The environmental law hasn’t been touched for 50 years. And now that an update is due, or rather an executive order signed by the president, it could very much be detrimental to Indian Country.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, said if the proposed changes get put into place it would short-circuit and undercut an effective tool for tribes. Grijalva said that communities of color are often on the front lines and if the National Environmental Policy Act is cut short, ill-conceived projects advance.

“Aside from the responsibility for consultation which is not always carried out well by agencies, the law, NEPA, has been an effective, effective legal tool for many tribes and basically you’re undercutting it and removing it from their ability to affect what we do at a federal level,” Rep. Grijalva said.

Back in August 2017, President Donald J. Trump issued Executive Order 13807, “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects.”

The order directed the Council for Environmental Quality, which oversees the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act and recommends policies to the president, to modernize the federal environmental review process. The Council for Environmental Quality is a division within the executive office of the president.

Mary Neumayr, chairman of the Council for Environmental Quality, said the proposed changes are necessary for the government to make timely and efficient decisions.

“CEQ’s proposed updates to its NEPA regulations aim to make the environmental review process more timely, effective, transparent, and predictable,” Neumayr said. “The proposed rule would promote better coordination and communication between federal agencies, and expand public participation in the process.”

Despite her remarks on public participation, Tuesday’s hearing was only the second of two hearings since the proposed rule changes were announced in January that allowed for public comment. Neumayr also left the auditorium after giving her opening statement.

While comments came from concerned citizens and organizations around the country, only one represented the concerns of Indian Country at Tuesday’s hearing.

Mark Van Norman, counsel for the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, read a statement on the association’s behalf that said the proposal should be withdrawn and restarted with better input from tribes.

“We need more environmental review, not less. Don’t curtail NEPA’s environmental protections. NEPA should be strengthened, not weakened,” Van Norman read aloud at the hearing. “Human life should be protected. Animal life should be protected. Mother Earth should be protected. CEQ’s proposal should be withdrawn and started over to have Indian tribes, states, local governments and the public involved from the beginning.”

One major concern is the amount of time allotted for public comment. Hearing attendees said 60 days and three minutes speaking time per person at the hearing was nowhere near sufficient.

Ricardo Ortiz, Pueblo of San Felipe, said tribes do what they can with the time they are given but more time is needed and that one of the most important reasons for the National Environmental Policy Act is to give the public time to review and comment.

“We need more time and they need to give us more time to voice our opinions on issues like this,” Ortiz said on a press call the day before the hearing. “We must not allow for these protective laws to be weakened.”

Lisa DeVille, Three Affiliated Tribes, spoke about the health concerns the proposed National Environmental Policy Act could do for her tribe in North Dakota at the Feb. 11 hearing in Denver.

“For tribal communities like Fort Berthold, which bear the brunt of health problems such as heart disease and asthma from the poorly planned federal projects, NEPA isn’t just an environmental protection law, it’s a critical tool for ensuring our voice. We cannot afford to lose it,” said DeVille, a leader with Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights. “Any law that provides broad opportunities for public participation in government decisions that affect the environment and local communities shouldn’t be rolled back; rather, laws like NEPA should be embraced and strengthened. NEPA is one of the only avenues for tribal members to have any input on federal actions.”

Among the proposed changes include establishing a time limit and page limits for the completion of environmental impact statements and environmental assessments, two years, 150 pages (300 pages for complex proposals); and one year, 75 pages respectively.

Currently, the average length of environmental impact statements is 645 pages and the average time to conduct National Environmental Policy Act reviews is 7.3 years, according to a presentation given by the Council for Environmental Quality.

Proposed changes would also allow for contractors to take a greater role in preparing environmental impact statements, something Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, likened to a take-home test.

Sen. Carper gave testimony opposing the proposal and said that the National Environmental Policy Act is one of the most copied environmental laws in the world, adding that it was signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon with bipartisan support in 1970.

“Bipartisan solutions are lasting solutions,” Sen. Carper said.

While they were outnumbered in the amount of comments given, proponents for the proposed changes are necessary because current regulations are outdated and aging infrastructure needs to be improved.

Darrin Roth, vice president of Highway Policy for American Trucking Associations, said poorly designed highways create congestion that result in unintended environmental consequences as well as safety hazards.

“That wasted time sitting in traffic has environmental consequences as well,” Roth said. “Congestion has caused the trucking industry to consume an additional seven billion gallons of fuel in 2016, representing 13 percent of the industry’s fuel consumption and resulting in 67 million metric tons of excess carbon dioxide emissions.”

Chad Whiteman, vice president of environment and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber recognizes the fundamental goals of the National Environmental Policy Act but that the time consuming federal decision-making process is affecting economic growth.

“Modernizing NEPA would accelerate projects that deliver benefits across a wide array of sectors,” Whiteman said. “For example, updated roadways and bridges will improve the efficiency of transportation and distribution systems thereby reducing traffic congestion and associated emissions.”

Whiteman added that timelier decisions on forest and water resources will “help mitigate environmental impacts such as damaging floods and wildfires.”

One of the last people to step to the microphone to speak was John Allen and he said the National Environmental Policy Act is an amazing piece of legislation that is unfortunately misunderstood.

“NEPA is based on a simple and beautiful premise, let’s make sure we understand and consider how our actions today affect our kids and grandkids and their future,” Allen said. “It says, in essence, think before you act. NEPA values critical thinking.”

Written public comments will be accepted until March 10 and can be sent by mail, fax or uploaded online at www.regulations.gov. 

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Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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