An Oakdale, Calif., resident examines a map during a public meeting in June 2016 showing plans for Sacramento District parks and projects along the Lower Stanislaus River. The National Environmental Policy Act requires such projects prepare environmental impact statements, which are invaluable resources for reporters. Photo: U.S. Army/Paul Bruton
TipSheet: Environmental Impact Statements a Key Tool for Reporters, But for How Long?
For more than four decades, the environmental impact statement has been among the best friends of journalists covering environment and energy. Now they are under attack.
The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, requires any federal agency contemplating a major action to prepare a study of what its impacts on the environment would be — and to compare the impacts to those of possible alternative actions. The result is an often-long document chock-full of facts you don’t have to discover on your own the hard way.
NEPA became law on Jan. 1, 1970, marking the dawn of a key era of environmental concern and major legislation in the U.S. It covers major federal actions — which can certainly mean the construction of a dam or highway or sewage treatment plant.
But it can also mean the issuance of a federal permit, and since those permits may be required of local governments or private companies, NEPA’s reach stretches well beyond federal projects.
Not every project is “major” enough, though, to require a full EIS. Sometimes only the less rigorous environmental assessment is needed, or nothing at all.
Long court struggles over the adequacy of EISs are common. Sometimes, when a local group opposes a project for non-environmental reasons (e.g., “not in my backyard’), they will use NEPA as a tool to obstruct or delay the project. But not always.
Whatever the bona fides of the objectors, however, courts usually make fair and factual decisions, and any valid environmental concerns are considered. Those court fights are conflict, and conflict is news.
So the mere fact that an EIS is being prepared should signal you that news may be in the offing.
A key reporting tool and resource
Even just as a reporting tool, EISs are priceless. They are generally prepared by professional environmental analysts who know what they are talking about and are trying to write a document objective enough to stand up in court.
In a typical action, a “draft” EIS is prepared by the lead agency contemplating an action. The draft is then put out for public comment, sometimes at public meetings. Sometimes the meetings are boring; sometimes they are overcrowded with angry people who want to be on TV. Sometimes those people are concerned about environmental impacts that should have been considered, but haven’t been.
Environmental reporters are advised that this great resource is endangered and may not be around in current form forever.
The draft EIS also goes to other agencies with their own viewpoints on the project — more potential conflict. When an EIS goes “final,” it usually means the lead agency is ready to move ahead with the project.
Keep in mind that EISs often have decent graphics, which (because they are in a government document) are public domain. You can use these directly (remembering to credit the agency) or have your art department make them better. Editors like this.
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