For decades, as the climate crisis has worsened and the impacts of Big Polluters have been felt at the local level, a crucial piece of legislation has given Americans a chance to fight back for their communities.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), first signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970, lays out the requirements for environmental considerations in the permitting and approval process for things like new highways, some construction sites, and energy facilities. It also requires that much of these processes be public, giving impacted individuals an opportunity to comment and demand answers.
But earlier this year, the Trump Administration rolled back some of NEPA’s core protections. With frontline and fence-line communities already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, the administration chose to put polluters and profits over people and public health.
But what exactly is NEPA? And how was the rollback a textbook case of environmental racism? Let’s dig in.
The Magna Carta of Environmental Legislation
Per the EPA, “[t]he National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was one of the first laws ever written that establishes the broad national framework for protecting our environment. NEPA's basic policy is to assure that all branches of government give proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment.”
For its far-reaching framework of environmental protection, NEPA has been called “the Magna Carta of federal environmental laws.” It has two major components, and over the past five decades, they have worked in concert to institutionalize aspects of environmental safety and community empowerment.
The first, Title I, establishes the Congressional Declaration of National Environmental Policy, creating a unified federal environmental policy. In setting this standard, Title I states, “Congress recognizes that each person should enjoy a healthful environment and that each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment.”
In practice, this means that any project with federal involvement (we’ll come back to what “federal involvement” means shortly) must produce detailed statements outlining the environmental impact of the project, unavoidable negative environmental consequences, alternate options, long-term impacts, and any irreversible use of resources.
Giving Communities a Voice
These statements, known as Environmental Impact Statements and Environmental Assessments, were a big deal in 1970 and they’re a big deal now. They must be published publicly, which gives local residents and watchdog groups insights into the environmental consequences of large-scale projects, like power facilities, new highways, and construction that utilizes federal funds.
By shining a light on the environmental impacts of actions with federal involvement, NEPA gives us all the opportunity to fight back. That’s because under NEPA, “[a]gencies are required to provide meaningful opportunities for public participation.”
These public comment periods have proved vital for communities as a way to voice their opposition, pressure public officials, and demand other options be pursued. It’s based on the idea that we should all have a say in what’s done to the world around us, and it’s served to give marginalized communities an opportunity to impact decisions in their own neighborhoods.
In a democracy, it’s crucial that the public be allowed to play an active role in decision-making. NEPA gives impacted communities that opportunity.
Rolling Back NEPA
Title II of NEPA establishes the President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which is tasked with implementing the act. The QEC has fairly broad powers, and over the years has been a hugely important tool for environmental protection and for fulfilling NEPA’s original intent.
But that’s about to change. The Trump Administration this month finalized a rule to roll back some of NEPA’s most important provisions, and tasks the CEQ with seeing this rollback through.
These rule changes include limiting the length of time for public comment and for environmental impact statements to be produced. This means less public involvement in decisions that will directly impact us, and creates a rush to approve projects even if the full environmental consequences aren’t known.
They also include new powers to create entire categories of development that do not require detailed statements about the environmental consequences of the actions. That means certain types of risky projects will be fast-tracked for approval without a single element of environmental assessment.
And the rules limit the types of projects that fall under NEPA purview even further by changing the definition of “major federal actions.” Now, any project where federal funding is deemed minimal to the outcome of the project can be fully excluded from NEPA regulations.
Finally, the administration’s rules forbid environmental analysis from considering the impact on climate change when reviewing projects. That’s right: it’s like they think ignoring the problem will make it go away. By barring consideration of “cumulative” long-term impacts, the new rules effectively prevent environmental analyses from taking into account the most urgent and impactful environmental issue of our time.
Environmental racism in action
Here’s the reality: when we talk about the new NEPA rules that will limit community input and the ability to study full environmental impacts, we’re talking about rules that disproportionately impact communities of color.
We know the facts. Sixty-eight percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Black children are nearly twice as likely to suffer from asthma, compared to the national average. People of color make up 76 percent of the population living within three miles of the 12 dirtiest coal power plants in the country, and African Americans are more likely to live in environmentally hazardous areas than any other racial demographic. Race is the most accurate predictor of the pollution level in an individual’s neighborhood – more accurate even than income.
To put it simply, from Cancer Alley to the streets of our cities, people of color face greater pollution and worse environmental outcomes.
And these aren’t chance outcomes. These intolerable statistics are the result of systemic racism that has put polluting facilities in Black and brown communities at disproportionate rates – and the resulting health impacts show just how dangerous systemic racism is on the individual level.
Now, the Trump Administration is rolling back one of the key tools these communities have to fight back. It’s an expansion of power for Big Polluters, and a direct affront to frontline communities already suffering from higher levels of pollution and adverse health outcomes.
It is, in other words, environmental racism in action.
And as the nation begins to reckon with its history of endemic racism and White supremacy, it’s even more disturbing to see one of the most important tools that communities of color have at their disposal to battle pollution in their neighborhoods be rolled backed and weakened.
- NEPA is a landmark piece of environmental protection legislation that has been around for 50 years.
- It requires thorough studies of environmental impacts and offers communities the chance to comment on projects, including power plants.
- The Trump Administration recently announced a rollback of NEPA’s protections, including a ban on considering the impact of climate change.
- These limits on NEPA protections are a textbook example of environmental racism in action.
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