Above the Waterline: Weakening common-sense environmental safeguards puts U.S. at risk

President Richard Nixon signing the National Environmental Policy Act into law on January 1, 1970.

When it comes to protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the health and prosperity of our communities, there is no question but that Donald J. Trump and his campaign-donor cronies in Big Oil, Big Pharma and Big Business have been systematically weakening the bedrock environmental safeguards that were passed by Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support in the 1970s.

Focused on excessive profit-making – and cruelly indifferent to the impacts of their activities on the health and well-being of average Americans – these corporations and the elected officials that do their bidding are putting all of us at increasing risk, especially non-white and low-income populations.

However unexpectedly, and no matter his motivations, Richard Nixon was an environmental hero. At the signing of one of the most important environmental statutes ever passed by Congress, Nixon said on January 1, 1970: “It is particularly fitting that my first official act in this new decade is to approve the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA]… By my participation in these efforts, I have become further convinced that the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment. It is literally now or never.”

In what has been called the “single biggest giveaway to polluters in forty years,” President Trump – aided and abetted by corporate lobbyists and lawyers – has proposed to eviscerate NEPA: the common-sense, mainstream law that empowers citizens and demands government accountability. In many cases, NEPA gives citizens their only chance to voice concerns about the impacts of federally-permitted and federally-funded projects on their homes and communities. Think: power plant, highway, dam, hazardous waste landfill, airport, pipeline and more.

Gina McCarthy, former head of the U.S. EPA and now president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, has said: “We live in a democracy, not a dictatorship. Americans deserve to have their voices heard before their families’ health and well-being are put at risk by projects that bring unwanted and unnecessary pollution and disruption into their communities.”

With disclosure and public engagement, the NEPA review process can lead, and has led, to better outcomes – saving lives, money, time and natural and cultural resources. Good examples in Georgia include the Atlantic Station project in Atlanta and the Savannah Harbor deepening. In other cases, the NEPA process can slow and even stop projects that are harmful to taxpayers and the environment. Along with local citizens, my environmental colleagues and I fought a proposed dam and reservoir on a tributary to the Chattahoochee River upstream of Lake Lanier for more than fifteen years.

Described by its proponents as a water supply reservoir, the real purpose of this project was plainly to serve as an amenity for a massive new development on thousands of acres of timberland in Hall County; early boosters claimed the development would be comparable to Peachtree City.With support from high state officials, this real estate project posing as public infrastructure would have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and significantly impacted the Chattahoochee River watershed.

The environmental impact statement required by NEPA revealed many things about this reservoir project, including the critical fact that there was no need for additional water supply in the area in the near future; population projections had been wildly exaggerated. Even assuming a need for more water supply, a far less expensive and less environmentally-harmful alternative exists just downstream: increasing the storage capacity in Lake Lanier. Thanks to NEPA – Richard Nixon’s common-sense law – the facts about this boondoggle were disclosed, so better decisions could be made to safeguard people, their communities and the environment. The reservoir is no longer being actively promoted.

Can the environmental reviews required by NEPA take a long time, as the Trump Administration claims? Yes, they can, in large part because the federal review agencies have been so defunded – primarily by Republican lawmakers – that they do not have enough staff to rapidly process the often-complex proposals. Delays also occur when the advocates of power plants, highways and other major projects fail to submit complete, factual applications, lengthening the process; I have personally seen this happen many times.

One of the most consequential outcomes of the Trump Administration’s proposed revisions to NEPA would be the elimination of requirements to consider the cumulative impacts that a proposed project would have on climate change: the long-term health of our planet. And, in an effort to silence concerned citizens, all comments that are not specific and technical in nature would be rejected under the proposal.

I hope, and believe, that this attack on public health, safety and welfare will be reversed in court, thanks to groups like Southern Environmental Law Center, which plans to sue the Trump Administration on behalf of a dozen and a half organizations that work to protect our water, air, forests, coastal resources, wildlife and historic resources. Of course, if the current Administration is defeated in November, a new president could overturn the NEPA rollbacks, along with other environmental rollbacks approved in recent years.
The most appalling aspect of this environmental assault on every American is that Trump and his Big Corporations have actually tried this maneuver, and so many others, in the first place. Their boldness has no limits.

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in INtown. 

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