Which U.S. law has the distinct honor of being considered the Magna Carta for environmental protection? (Our title sort of gives it away.) The National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. NEPA for short. It’s our nation’s charter for protecting the environment.
What is NEPA?
NEPA sets up the policies, goals, and means for public officials (in every agency in the executive branch of government) to have a “hard look” at the potential environmental consequences to air, water, and land use of proposed projects. That hard look comes in the form of three possible reviews – categorial exclusions (CatExs), environmental assessments (EAs), and environmental impact statements (EISs) – completed prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment. These reviews are usually conducted by environmental consultants at the behest of the lead agency (the one promoting or sponsoring the project).
Who’s responsible for implementing NEPA?
The executive branch’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) oversees NEPA implementation and has numerous guidance documents on the implementation of NEPA. Federal agencies – from agriculture to defense, from treasury to veterans affairs – have developed their own NEPA procedures to supplement CEQ’s guidance as well, and those procedures vary from agency to agency.
The different resource areas evaluated under NEPA are specific to each agency and can range from Airport Runway Hazards to Socioeconomics. For example, the requirements for an EA in compliance with the NEPA implementing regulations for US Housing and Urban Development are different than those for the Veterans Administration or the Air Force.
What projects do NEPA requirements apply to?
While the NEPA process applies to any federal government actions that may cause environmental effects, NEPA’s procedural requirements can sometimes apply to private individuals or companies, such as when a company has to apply for a permit to cross federal lands or impact water of the United States. The NEPA process can also be required for projects that may impact endangered species, historic properties, or low-income communities.
Sounds complicated? You betcha! Navigation of the NEPA review process requires careful planning, coordination with key stakeholders (which can sometimes feel like herding cats), and sound scientific analysis and procedures.
It takes a special consultant to navigate the process in the most cost-efficient and timely manner. That’s why we’re happy to introduce Kristin Lehman, CHMM, as our NEPA Service Lead.
Have you met Kristin Lehman, our NEPA Service Lead?
“We are excited to have Kristin’s leadership for our NEPA service line. Kristin has a broad base of experience ranging from environmental compliance to brownfield initiatives to ecological risk assessment, all of which couples with her deep understanding of NEPA regulations and requirements,” says Paul Stoddard, Vice President, Geological Services.
Kristin has a diverse 20-year consulting career that’s given her an impressive depth of technical experience.
“My passion for environmental consulting,” says Kristin, “is fueled by the diversity of cool projects I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of. So much of the work we do results in land or facilities being put to beneficial reuse for our communities. I am proud to be a part of that.”
Kristin is fluent in the “language” of NEPA, as well as NEPA-equivalent individual state environmental review requirements, like California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
“NEPA and state review requirements are usually triggered when funding for a particular proposed project has been made available,” explains Kristin. “Following the NEPA process from that first triggering action is both an art and a science. And the forthcoming One Federal Decision policy is likely to shift the process in 2020.”
Kristin and her team know how to provide high-quality, compliant NEPA documentation that both stands up against a sometimes-lengthy legal review process while also maintaining the plain language requirements for public documents. “I most enjoy the challenge of translating complex assessment in a way that the general public can digest,” Kristin says.
What’s the driving vision behind how Kristin leads our NEPA team? “Our vision is to cultivate our ‘trusted advisor’ status in the NEPA realm,” says Kristin, “We’re working to expand the reach of our NEPA subject matter experts especially in the market segments of land development, transportation, government agencies. “
How have Kristin and her team navigated NEPA?
One of the NEPA projects that stands out most in Kristin’s memory is a project that perfectly demonstrates the numerous steps (and twists and turns) the NEPA process encompasses.
Proposed Action: The Veterans Administration (VA) (whom we support through our Tennessee Department of General Services contract) needed to expand a veterans’ cemetery beyond its initial 34 acres to accommodate burials beyond a 10-year horizon. The design for the expanded cemetery included a 131-acre project site with burial areas, a columbarium, and cremains section (scatter garden), as well as an administration/maintenance building and committal service shelter.
Subsequent NEPA Process: Our NEPA team’s job was to conduct an EA of the projects potential impacts for the VA and co-sponsor, the Tennessee Department of Veterans Services (TDVS), which had located the new 131-acre, state-owned property in Parkers Crossroads, Henderson County, Tennessee.
The EA process for the veterans cemetery included:
- A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment
- A habitat assessment for Indiana and northern long-eared bats
- Informal coordination with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for listed bats
- Wetland delineations and hydrologic determinations for wetlands and streams
- Coordination at the site with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
- Consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office and known Native American tribes to determine potential impacts to historic and archeological resources complicated by the potential for encountering human remains at an adjacent Civil War era battleground.
- An evaluation of impacts to each of the resource areas during the three specific phases:
- construction of the initial development (34-acre site)
- construction of the cemetery expansion (131-acres)
- normal operations for the remaining life of the facility
End Results of a Successfully Navigated NEPA Process: We found both adverse and beneficial minor short-term impacts during the construction phase of the VA’s Proposed Action. The minor, short-term beneficial impacts were for socioeconomic resources (jobs created/expanded during construction). The minor, short-term adverse impacts were on aesthetics; air quality; geology and soils; hydrology and water quality; wildlife and habitat; land use; noise; and floodplains and wetlands.
We found both adverse and beneficial long-term impacts of the operation phase of the VA’s Proposed Action. The minor, long-term adverse impacts were on air quality, wildlife and habitat, and land use. The minor, long-term beneficial impacts were for, again, socioeconomic resources (continued job creation/expansion during operation).
Based on our findings, we prepared a Notice of Availability and Finding of No Significant Impact on behalf of the VA and TDVS.
Because of the work of our NEPA team, the cemetery is now open and provides a final resting place for our nation’s veterans.
Is an airport, administrative building, military complex, highway, parkland purchase, and other federal activity in your future? The earlier in the process Kristin and her team of qualified hydrologic professionals and environmental scientists can get on the job, the more positively they can impact your bottom line.