Demystifying Environmental

Consultant offers advice on getting through the NEPA process


Over the course of its almost 40-year history, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has been the subject of numerous articles, guidebooks, and best practices manuals. The vast amount of material available on the subject of NEPA can be daunting, if for no other reason because of the use of regulatory language that can seem obtuse and tiresome. Consequently, it can discourage many airport managers, who become frustrated in wading through the environmental process, thereby forfeiting the opportunities to embrace and participate in crafting NEPA documentation.

NEPA requires each federal agency to disclose a clear, accurate description of potential environmental impacts to the interested public that proposed projects and reasonable alternatives to those projects could cause. Through NEPA, Congress directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to integrate environmental factors in its planning and decisionmaking processes. This provides the public with a fair, open opportunity to review and comment on alternatives, the potential impacts, and other environmental issues related to a proposed project.

In approving an airport development proposal, FAA considers environmental effects as fully and as fairly as it does technical, economic, and other non-environmental considerations. Thus, one of the FAA’s primary objectives is to consider ways to enhance environmental quality and avoid or minimize adverse environmental impacts resulting from proposed projects and their reasonable alternatives.

Environmental compliance can be understood as a process with specific steps to undertake at various points. Giving airport management tools to help them see the assignment from different perspectives, to build commitment with key stakeholders, and to create capacity for learning and involvement can produce positive results.

Learning new information is reinforced when the public, stakeholders, and agencies participate at a level where obtuse jargon and complexity becomes familiar. This, in turn, produces a result that adds value when a project is implemented. That value-added approach can be found in three simple words: simplicity, collaboration and integration.

Simplicity - understanding the framework
In the simplest terms, NEPA can be described as an “umbrella” that involves the integration of over 120 laws, regulations, and executive orders.

At the most elemental level, NEPA delineates requirements for major federal project funding or other approvals and is intended to encompass the whole human environment and to address the required elements within their respective laws and policies.

NEPA was written with an interdisciplinary framework that drives NEPA documentation to best ensure that agency actions are understood and easily shared. Required activities within the NEPA framework generally include the consideration of alternatives and their environmental effects, as well as public involvement and interagency collaboration. Looking at it simply, NEPA is a process to document the potential environmental effects of a proposed action.

In order to document these effects and consider the intent and purpose of NEPA, three distinct NEPA framework elements consider if, and to what extent, a proposed action could significantly affect the environment. These three elements include:

  • the Categorical Exclusion (CatEx);
  • the Environmental Assessment (EA); and
  • the Environmental Impact statement (EIS).

Categorical exclusion
The CatEx is the most straightforward in the NEPA framework, resembling a checklist of NEPA criteria. A proposed action may be categorically excluded from a detailed environmental analysis if it meets certain criteria which the Federal Aviation Administration has previously determined as having no significant environmental impact.

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