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Environmental organizations sue over NEPA changes

The Southern Environmental Law Center is representing 16 environmental organizations in a lawsuit claiming that the Trump administration illegally cut corners in “gutting” the National Environmental Policy Act. 

“This is a blatant and transparent effort from the Trump administration to further silence communities that are not as well connected, not as wealthy, not as valuable to the White House as others,” said Kym Hunter, a Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney who is heading up the legal effort. 

The new rules prevent agencies from considering climate change in their reviews as well as from considering cumulative impacts. For example, when a new highway or bypass is proposed near a current interstate, the projected increase in pollution is added to the existing pollution levels to get a full understanding of how nearby communities will be affected. The NEPA rewrite eliminates consideration of these “cumulative impacts.”

SELC alleges that the administration “made a mockery of the laws and policies that are designed to make changes like this a transparent and public process.” Only two public hearings were held nationwide before the decision was made to adopt the changes.

“Even so, the Council on Environmental Quality received more than 1.1 million comments and has a duty to review each one,” reads a press release from SELC. “However, CEQ moved forward with rulemaking less than four months later, an impossibility if it followed its mandate.”

The rule changes stemmed from an Aug. 15, 2017, executive order from President Donald Trump titled “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure,” which ordered, among other things, that CEQ take action to “ensure that agencies apply NEPA in a manner that reduces unnecessary burdens and delays as much as possible, including by using CEQ’s authority to interpret NEPA to simplify and accelerate the NEPA review process.”

On its website CEQ said that the changes represent the first comprehensive update to NEPA in more than 40 years. The final rule will “(modernize) regulations to streamline the development of infrastructure projects and promote better decision making by the Federal government,” the website says.

Organizations represented by SELC include MountainTrue, Defenders of Wildlife, N.C. Wildlife Federation, Clean Air North Carolina, Upstate Forever, Wild Virginia, Haw River Assembly, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Virginia Wilderness Committee, South Carolina Wildlife Federation, Highlanders for Responsible Development, Cowpasure River Preservation Association, Congaree Riverkeeper, the Clinch Coalition, Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley and Alabama River Alliance.