National Environmental Policy Act
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the 'Magna Carta' of the Environmental Movement
NEPA is often said to be the Magna Carta of the environmental movement...
U.S. Congressional Declaration of a National Environmental Policy
- United States Code
- Title 42, Chapter 55, Section 4331. Enacted January 1, 1970
NEPA § 101
- (a) The Congress, recognizing the profound impact of man’s activity on the interrelations of all components of the natural environment, particularly the profound influences of population growth, high-density urbanization, industrial expansion, resource exploitation, and new and expanding technological advances and recognizing further the critical importance of restoring and maintaining environmental quality to the overall welfare and development of man, declares that it is the continuing policy of the Federal Government, in cooperation with State and local governments, and other concerned public and private organizations, to use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance, in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.
- (b) In order to carry out the policy set forth in this chapter, it is the continuing responsibility of the Federal Government to use all practicable means, consistent with other essential considerations of national policy, to improve and coordinate Federal plans, functions, programs, and resources to the end that the Nation may
- (1) fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations;
- (2) assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings;
- (3) attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health or safety, or other undesirable and unintended consequences;
- (4) preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage, and maintain, wherever possible, an environment which supports diversity and variety of individual choice;
- (5) achieve a balance between population and resource use which will permit high standards of living and a wide sharing of life’s amenities; and
- (6) enhance the quality of renewable resources and approach the maximum attainable recycling of depletable resources.
- (c) The 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.
NEPA process, the process of environmental impact statements
The NEPA process is designed to involve the public and gather the best available information in a single place so that decision makers can be fully informed when they make their choices.
Environmental Impact Statement
Scoping: The first meetings are held to discuss existing laws, the available information, and the research needed. The tasks are divided up and a lead group is selected. Decision makers and all those involved with the project can attend the meetings.
Notice: The public is notified that the agency is preparing an EIS. The agency also provides the public with information regarding how they can become involved in the process. The agency announces its project proposal with a notice in the Federal Register, notices in local media, and letters to citizens and groups that it knows are likely to be interested. Citizens and groups are welcome to send in comments helping the agency identify the issues it must address in the EIS (or EA).
Draft EIS (DEIS): Based on both agency expertise and issues raised by the public, the agency prepares a Draft EIS with a full description of the affected environment, a reasonable range of alternatives, and an analysis of the impacts of each alternative.
Comment: Affected individuals then have the opportunity to provide feedback through written and public hearing statements.
Final EIS (FEIS) and Proposed Action: Based on the comments on the Draft EIS, the agency writes a Final EIS, and announces its Proposed Action. The public is not invited to comment on this, but if they are still unhappy, or feel that the agency has missed a major issue, they may protest the EIS to the Director of the agency. The Director may either ask the agency to revise the EIS, or explain to the protester why their complaints are not actually taken care of.
Re-evaluation: Prepared following an approved FEIS or ROD when unforeseen changes to the proposed action or its impacts occurs, or when a substantial period of time has passed between approval of an action and the planned start of said action. Based on the significance of the changes, three outcomes may result from a re-evaluation report: (1) the action may proceed with no substantive changes to the FEIS, (2) significant impacts are expected with the change that can be adequately addressed in a Supplemental EIS (SEIS), or (3) the circumstances force a complete change in the nature and scope of the proposed action, thereby voiding the pre-existing FEIS (and ROD, if applicable), requiring the lead agency to restart the NEPA process and prepare a new EIS to encompass the changes.
Supplemental EIS (SEIS): Typically prepared after either a Final EIS or Record of Decision has been issued and new environmental impacts that were not considered in the original EIS are discovered, requiring the lead agency to re-evaluate its initial decision and consider new alternatives to avoid or mitigate the new impacts. Supplemental EISs are also prepared when the size and scope of a federal action changes, when a significant period of time has lapsed since the FEIS was completed to account for changes in the surrounding environment during that time, or when all of the proposed alternatives in an EIS are deemed to have unacceptable environmental impacts and new alternatives are proposed.
Record of Decision (ROD): Once all the protests are resolved the agency issues a Record of Decision which is its final action prior to implementation. If members of the public are still dissatisfied with the outcome, they may sue the agency in Federal court.
Excerpt from EPA history
By late 1969, the subterranean rumblings heralding the impending explosion could already be heard. On August 31, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska complained: "Suddenly out of the woodwork come thousands of people talking about ecology."
On October 20, Robert Bendiner -- in a signed New York Times editorial--had a startling prediction to make: "Call it conservation, the environment, ecological balance, or what you will, it is a cause more permanent, more far-reaching, than any issue of the era -- Vietnam and Black Power included."
The Nixon Administration, although preoccupied with an unpopular war and a recession-ridden economy, took some stopgap action on the environmental front in 1969. In May, President Nixon had set up a Cabinet-level Environmental Quality Council as well as a Citizens' Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality. His critics charged that these were largely ceremonial bodies, with almost no real power.
Stung by these charges, President Nixon appointed a White House committee in December 1969 to consider whether there should be a separate environmental agency. The President had already asked Litton founder, Roy L. Ash, to take a sweeping look at organizational problems throughout the government.
It was at just this time that Congress sent to the President a remarkable bill known as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis) -- looking back at the "Environmental Decade" in 1980 -- called NEPA "the most important piece of environmental legislation in our history." It is easy to see why.
A tone of high-minded idealism pervades this statute. NEPA's stated purposes were:
- "To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment."
- "To promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man."
- "To enrich our understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation."
To further these ends, NEPA called for the formation of a Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to give the President expert advice on environmental matters. The CEQ was also charged with reviewing Environmental Impact Statements, which were now required of all federal agencies planning projects with major environmental ramifications.
In an era of bitter ideological disputes, public opinion was virtually unanimous on the need for the national environmental policy NEPA would generate. Turning his reluctant consent into a show of visionary statesmanship, President Nixon chose to sign NEPA on New Year's Day, 1970--thus making the signing his "first official act of the decade." He named future EPA Administrator Russell E. Train to be the first CEQ Chairman.
NEPA's New Year's Day signing did prove to have more than symbolic significance. Enactment of this law set the stage for a year of intense activity on the environmental front. Senator Gaylord Nelson recalls that right after the passage of NEPA, "the issue of the environment exploded on the country like Mount St. Helens." The authors of the first CEQ Annual Report on Environmental Quality had the same sense of an unprecedented watershed. In August 1970, they wrote: "Historians may one day call 1970 the year of the environment -- a turning point, a year when the quality of life [became] more than a phrase..."
It was in this atmosphere of intense concern for environmental issues that President Nixon delivered his 1970 State of the Union Address. Speaking to both houses of Congress on January 22, the President proposed making "the 1970s a historic period when, by conscious choice, [we] transform our land into what we want it to become." He continued this activist theme on February 10, when he announced a 37-point environmental action program. The program gave special emphasis to strengthening federal programs for dealing with water and air pollution.
Two months later, on April 22, the first Earth Day celebration brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favor of environmental reform. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) and Congressman Paul McCloskey (R-Calif.) gave bipartisan sponsorship to the event, but its popularity far surpassed their widest expectations.
The phenomenal success of Earth Day gave greater priority than ever to environmental issues. In particular, it strengthened the impact of the report that Roy L. Ash of the President's Commission on Executive Reorganization had submitted on April 15. That report argued strongly than an independent agency was needed to coordinate all of the Administration's new environmental initiatives.
In sending Reorganization Plan No. 3 to Congress on July 9, the President admitted that he had first been reluctant to propose setting up a new independent agency. Eventually, however, he was convinced by all "the arguments against placing environmental protection activities under the jurisdiction of one or another of the existing departments and agencies."
These arguments were twofold: first, the primary mission of each existing department would bias any decisions it made on a government-wide basis concerning the environment; second, the same factors might raise questions about the objectivity of any existing department as a standard-setting body for other agencies and departments.
To avoid such pitfalls, President Nixon called for "a strong, independent agency."
The mission of this "Environmental Protection Agency" would be to:
- Establish and enforce environmental protection standards.
- Conduct environmental research.
- Provide assistance to others combatting environmental pollution.
- Assist the CEQ in developing and recommending to the President new policies for environmental protection.
The components of the new agency were pieced together from various programs at other departments. From the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) came several functions: those of the National Air Pollution Control Administration, the bureaus of Water Hygiene and Solid Waste Management, and some functions of the Bureau of Radiological Health. The Food and Drug Administration of HEW gave up to EPA its control over tolerance levels for pesticides.
The Department of the Interior contributed the functions of the Federal Water Quality Administration and portions of its pesticide research responsibilities. EPA gained functions respecting pesticide registration from the Department of Agriculture. From the Atomic Energy Commission and the Federal Radiation Council, the new agency gained responsibility for radiation criteria and standards.
Two of these programs--HEW's National Air Pollution Control Administration (NAPCA) and Interior's Water Quality Administration (FWQA)--represented the core of the federal government's pollution-control apparatus prior to the birth of EPA. The air program was founded in 1955 in reaction to a wide range of alarming problems: the suffocating blanket of smog covering greater Los Angeles; the 1948 atmospheric inversion that temporarily raised the death rate in Donora, Pa., by 400 percent; a London "fog" in 1952 that killed 4,000 people over a four-day period. Equally severe water pollution problems--untreated sewage and industrial waste, dying rivers and lakes--led to the founding of the predecessor of the FWQA...
NAPCA began as a research body with no regulatory powers. The Clean Air Act of 1963 gave NAPCA enforcement authority to attack interstate air pollution problems. Two years later, the act was amended to permit NAPCA to set air pollution standards for new motor vehicles. In reality, however, little effective use was made of these powers in the 1960s, and they were further diluted by the Air Quality Act of 1967, which re-emphasized the principle of state and local control over air pollution.
The Federal Water Quality Administration (FWQA) began as a program in the Public Health Service of HEW but was transferred to Interior in 1966. The FWQA was authorized to give technical assistance to states and localities and to distribute construction grants for municipal waste treatment programs. Like NAPCA, the FWQA gained enforcement and standard-setting powers in the 1960s, but the actual exercise of these powers fell far short of expectations.
One of EPA's goals was to give real bite to the federal enforcement bark...
The President's charge to the first EPA Administrator was to treat "air pollution, water pollution and solid wastes as different forms of a single problem." The main purpose of the reorganization that gave birth to EPA was to introduce a "broad systems approach [that]...would give unique direction to our war on pollution."
... the Year of the Environment came to an end on an extremely upbeat note with the signing of a major piece of environmental legislation. The Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970 was the perfect bookend to balance the National Environmental Policy Act the President had signed with such a flourish on New Year's Day.
The Clean Air Act brought dramatic--and substantive--changes to the federal air quality program.
The 'Magna Carta' of the Environmental Movement
Russell Train, the environmental council’s original chairman, looked back on NEPA’s legacy 40 years after its signing by writing, “It is fair to say that NEPA brought environment front and center to federal agencies, and this can be deemed a success brought about, in no small part, by the many federal employees and citizens who have applied the law over these decades. ... No longer could federal agencies say ‘we know best’ ... . NEPA democratized decision-making”...
NEPA accomplished all three of the goals that Jackson articulated when he first introduced the bill: It established a lasting national policy, it spawned vast amounts of environmental research, and it permanently established an environmental presence in the executive branch. Train called it a “revolutionary change.”
Others have gone even further. It "is often referred to as the Magna Carta of the country’s national environmental laws.”