Demystifying Environmental

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.

Examples include NavAid installations, making minor facility renovations, and reconstruction of perimeter or security fencing. A CatEx is based on the FAA’s experience with a particular kind of action and its environmental effects. The FAA has studied the action in previous EAs, found no significant impact on the environment based on the analyses, and validated the lack of significant impacts after the implementation.

When a proposed action is included in the FAA’s CatEx list, the airport must demonstrate and the FAA must check to make sure that no extraordinary circumstances exist that may cause the proposed action to have a significant effect in a particular situation. Examples of extraordinary circumstances include effects to endangered species, protected cultural sites, and wetlands.

If there are no extraordinary circumstances indicating that the proposed action effects may be significant, then FAA can approve the CatEx and allow the airport to proceed with implementation of the proposed action. Because of the FAA CatEx list and the experience FAA has within those categories, the CatEx is a simple and direct document that provides an airport the ability to satisfy NEPA requirements without enduring a lengthy process.

Environmental assessment
The EA is a more intense examination of the same NEPA criteria as a CatEx, and is intended to determine the significance of the environmental effects and to look at alternative means to achieve the FAA’s objectives. The public, other federal agencies, and outside parties may provide input into an EA — and then comment on the draft EA when it is published. According to FAA, an EA is intended to be a concise document that provides sufficient evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an EIS.

If the EA demonstrates there is no significant impact to the environment, FAA will issue a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). The FONSI (which still can’t escape a wry smile when repeated to unknowing participants) is a document that presents the reasons why FAA has concluded that there are no significant environmental impacts projected to occur upon implementation of the proposed action. The FONSI may address measures that FAA will take to reduce or mitigate potentially significant impacts.

Environmental impact statement
When the EA determines that the environmental consequences of a proposed action may be significant, an EIS is prepared. An EIS is the most detailed evaluation of the proposed action and alternatives. The public, other federal agencies, and outside parties may provide input into the preparation of an EIS and then comment on the draft EIS when it is completed.

If FAA anticipates that a proposed action may significantly affect the environment, or if it is environmentally controversial, FAA may choose to prepare an EIS without having to first prepare an EA. After a final EIS is prepared and at the time of its decision, the FAA will prepare a public record of its decision, addressing how the EIS findings — including consideration of alternatives — were incorporated into FAA’s decisionmaking process.

A Record of Decision (ROD) is the final step in the EIS process. The ROD is a document that:

  • states what the decision is;
  • identifies the alternatives considered, including the environmentally preferred alternative; and
  • discusses mitigation plans, including any enforcement and monitoring commitments.

In the record of decision, FAA discusses all the factors — including any considerations of national policy that were contemplated when it reached its decision — on whether to and how to proceed with the proposed action.

The terms CatEx, EA, FONSI and ROD are common framework elements that form the basis of NEPA documentation for federal actions. The terms and actions are not complex when understood from the perspective of NEPA’s basic interdisciplinary intent. From the CatEx to the ROD, each of these elements shares common characteristics and terminology that build on one another.

Understanding NEPA as a multi-level framework serves to simplify an airport’s explanations when it engages the community and staff.

Collaboration produces better relationships
NEPA is a framework that encourages transparency among all decisionmaking and analysis. While many airports dread this part of NEPA, it can and should be embraced as a means to form long-term relations with other agencies, stakeholders, and the public. The ability to engage the public on any project is not necessarily in every airport management team’s skill set. However, this role can be the most important tool airport management has when considering the need for an open and transparent process.

The benefits of actively engaging the public and participating agencies can produce results with the right mix of people and strategy. This approach can provide better integration by emphasizing the sharing of ideas and opinions. Enhancing the integration and coordination of many agencies, stakeholders, and the public can be productive due to the long-term benefits those relationships carry.

Collaboration and public involvement eases implementation of a decision. On the back end of a project, the knowledge gained can be applied to future decisions on monitoring, enforcement, and upcoming projects. The less obvious but equally important benefit is to reduce the likelihood of litigation by including key stakeholders in the earliest phases of development, solving issues at the lowest levels while building agreement and trust in the resulting product.

Integration - the starting block to better projects
Unfortunately, it is still very common for planning decisions to be revisited in NEPA, rather than integrating NEPA decisions into planning at the outset. At the same time, the NEPA process fails to take best advantage of planning processes, and is often understood as a separate and distinct set of procedures. As a result, the public and elected officials find themselves impatient, confused, and frustrated by the process.

Actively taking steps to integrate project planning and NEPA decisionmaking can streamline the project development process and best consider the environment. This approach can allow airports to develop projects that reflect and incorporate multi-agency goals and produce decisionmaking that endures and does not need to be revisited or revised. On the timing side, the issue of more efficient and faster project delivery can be realized when multi-agency integration occurs.

Integrating planning and NEPA processes is likely to require senior management direction and participation. However, this doesn’t mean that senior management is involved in every strategy and project meeting. The overall effectiveness does depend, to a large extent, on management’s awareness and commitment to push for results. Senior management involvement can provide an environment where strategies for linking planning and NEPA can be developed, tested, and adjusted within and among participating staff.

Linking the strategies available under NEPA with available planning tools is a time and cost advantage to an airport in both the long and short term. In order to remain ahead of a project, airports need to examine and understand those linkages particular to their airport and the project under consideration well in advance of jumping into conceptual design. An integrated approach to planning and NEPA helps solve this dilemma and can result in better projects that share a common link and avoid potentially expensive late phase changes.

Simplicity, collaboration, integration
Remember NEPA’s intent is to promote collaboration. In the simplicity of its framework lie three core elements: the CatEx, the EA and the EIS. Each of these elements shares common characteristics and terminology. Integrating NEPA into an airport’s project development can help streamline multiple processes to save time, while avoiding expensive changes near the end of project planning or design. Implementing the required processes in a community can have a long-term relationship benefit and ease preferred project implementation.

About the Author
William Keller has 20 years experience in aviation as an airport director, planner, and environmental consultant. He is the environmental service group leader for the Northwest Mountain Region of Reynolds Smith & Hills (RS&H), a full-service aviation consulting firm. Keller holds membership in the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) and is pursuing his Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accredited professional certification. He is an active pilot with a commercial certificate with an instrument rating and is based in Greenwood Village, CO.