SAN FRANCISCO, California, July 29, 2020 (ENS) – A nationwide coalition of more than 20 nonprofit organizations from the environmental justice, outdoor recreation, and conservation communities filed a lawsuit today challenging the Trump administration’s attack on the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA.

The administration finalized rules that will cripple core components of NEPA in mid-July. Unless a court stops it, the final rule goes into effect on September 14, 2020. The groups are suing the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Mary Neumayr in her official capacity as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.

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Council on Environmental Quality Chair Mary Neumayr (since January 2019) shown here during the Inaugural Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Task Force Meeting, Washington, D.C. June 15, 2017. (USDA photo by Lance Cheung)

Under new regulations put forth by the Council on Environmental Quality, polluting projects of all kinds will be exempt from basic environmental reviews, and the public will lose access to one of its best tools to prevent dangerous, destructive projects.

Ironically, NEPA is the law that established the Council on Environmental Quality. Passed into law on January 1, 1970, NEPA was one of the first laws that established the broad national framework for protecting the U.S. environment.

NEPA’s basic policy is to assure that all branches of government give proper consideration to the environment before undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment.

NEPA requirements are invoked when airports, buildings, military complexes, highways, parkland purchases, and other federal activities are proposed. The most visible NEPA requirements of all federal agencies are Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements, which are assessments of the likelihood of impacts from alternative courses of action.

“It has been more than 30 years since the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act and environmental justice communities continue to live with the impacts of decisions that precipitated its need,” said Kerene Tayloe, director of federal legislative affairs at WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

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A fracking company flares off excess gas on the Pawnee National Grasslands , Oct. 26, 2014 (Photo by Wild Earth Guardians)

“The changes made to this bedrock environmental law will further undermine basic protections, including the public’s right to participate in decision making and the obligation of the government to fully and thoroughly study the cumulative impacts of health hazards on overburdened communities,” Tayloe said. “They also reflect a disregard of Black, Brown and poor communities and the unwillingness of this administration to execute laws in a way that benefits all Americans. WE ACT for Environmental Justice is committed to pursuing every option available to preserve and strengthen NEPA for the betterment of everyone.”

In their complaint, the groups declare that “The National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, NEPA, often called the “Magna Carta” of American environmental law, embodies our Nation’s environmental conscience. In enacting NEPA, Congress issued a sweeping declaration of values and a call to action, centering the protection of human health and the environment in all federal agency decisions. The statute affirms the government’s role to “fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.”

But, the plaintiff groups assert, “That long history of continuity with respect to CEQ’s interpretation of NEPA has come to an abrupt halt under the current administration. The current administration explicitly admitted that it placed the interests of pipelines, fossil fuel energy production, and road building
over that of environmental and public health.”

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Abandoned mining equipment at Horseshoe Mesa on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim Nov. 18, 2011 (Photo by Al Hikes AZ)

Over the objections of states, members of Congress, many conservation, environmental justice, and public health organizations, and the general public, the groups argue, on July 16, CEQ issued a final rule rewriting the entirety of its 1978 regulations.

“More than an update, the Final Rule upends virtually every aspect of NEPA and its longstanding practice, contradicts decades of court interpretations of NEPA’s mandates, and undercuts the reliance placed on NEPA by the public, decision-makers, and project proponents,” the groups argue in their complaint.

“The Final Rule limits the scope of actions to which NEPA applies, eviscerates the thorough environmental analysis that lies at the heart of the statute, reduces the ability of the public to participate in federal agency decision-making, and seeks to limit judicial review of agency NEPA compliance,” they point out.

Groups that struggle to protect special areas, such as the national monuments declared by President Barack Obama and dismembered by Trump and the U.S.-Mexico border where he is attempting to build a wall, are prominent among the plaintiff groups.

Stephen Bloch, legal director, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), explained, “The Trump administration’s attack on NEPA poses an immediate threat to Utah’s redrock wilderness. No place in the lower 48 states is heating up faster than the Colorado Plateau, which includes Utah’s redrock country. It’s critical that federal agencies know and disclose the impacts that decisions like oil and gas leasing and authorizing the widespread removal of native vegetation will have on the climate crisis, and in turn to places like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.”

“NEPA matters,” said Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center. “Here on the border, we know what a world without NEPA looks like because of what we’ve experienced with the border wall. The U.S. government has waived NEPA and dozens of other federal laws to rush construction for a politically motivated and destructive wall project. We would not wish this on any other community in this country. The feeling is like having a train barreling at you with nothing to stop it. To protect our environment and our health, we the people must save NEPA.”

The 20 plaintiff groups are represented by the Earthjustice offices in Seattle and San Francisco, and the Western Environmental Law Center based in Portland, Oregon.

“We have consistently defeated this administration’s relentless, vicious dismantling of safeguards for people and the environment, and we will do so again for this critically important law,” said Susan Jane Brown, Western Environmental Law Center co-counsel. “A thriving economy is not at odds with worker protections and a healthy environment – it depends on both.”

“The Trump administration picked the wrong fight,” said Kristen Boyles, an Earthjustice attorney serving as co-counsel on the case. “They want to make it easier to silence people’s voices and give polluters a free pass to bulldoze through our neighborhoods. That’s why we’re taking them to court.”

Read the changes the Council on Environmental Quality has made to NEPA: https://ceq.doe.gov/laws-regulations/regulations.html

Read the complaint: https://westernlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/2020.07.29-CEQ-NEPA-Complaint.pdf

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