This 50-year-old policy is communities’ first line of defense against dirty development projects. Trump is about to roll it back.

An intergenerational fight

Taylor Thomas, who was raised two blocks away from the 710 freeway in Long Beach, was playing outside her home when she had her first asthma attack at 7 years old. For a while, she had to use an in-home nebulizer machine to control her breathing. In Southern California, she’s hardly alone: Thomas joined the 15 percent of children in Long Beach who had also been diagnosed with asthma, which many trace back to the dirty air they breathe.

The 710 freeway, which stretches from Long Beach to East Los Angeles, has been dubbed the “diesel death zone” because of the massive amount of diesel emitted from freight trucks, ships, trains, and industrial facilities that blanket the busy corridor, which culminates in one of the country’s busiest ports. For over a decade, Los Angeles County leaders have pushed for a major project to expand the freeway, despite residents’ concerns about displacement and pollution. Thomas and others in the Long Beach area invoked NEPA in response and were able to force the consideration of various project alternatives that focused on sustainable architecture that could limit displacement, in lieu of the highway expansion.

“It’s been a multi-year fight, but it’s also been an intergenerational fight. It’s been a whole type of community fight,” Thomas, now 29 and a research and policy analyst for East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice, told Grist before she delivered her testimony at the D.C. hearing. “We’re part of a coalition made up of folks up and down the corridor, so NEPA has been like a bridge for us to be able to come together against this really big project.”

In the end, Los Angeles County transportation officials did an about-face and halted the 710 expansion project. Thomas’s victory might not have been possible if Trump’s revisions had been in effect at the time of her fight: The proposed rollback would limit the consideration of project alternatives, with stricter language stipulating that such alternatives must be “technically and economically feasible.”

50 years of NEPA

NEPA, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970, was the first significant piece of federal environmental legislation in U.S. history. It established the White House Council on Environmental Quality, made it a requirement for major federal projects to produce environmental impact statements and environmental assessments, and ultimately led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental activists protest against the Trump administration’s proposed revisions to NEPA. Grist / AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post

NEPA regulations have not been extensively updated in over 40 years. The policy requires a thorough environmental review of a broad range of federal actions, such as federally-funded construction projects, plans to manage federal lands, and other corporate projects requiring federal approval for licenses and permits.

But in 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that included a two-year goal to complete environmental reviews for pending major infrastructure projects and an order to revamp NEPA requirements for future projects. The proposed revamp would make it easier for the government to consider public comments and objections “exhausted and forfeited.”

In addition, the rollback also proposes to establish a one-year limit for environmental assessments of projects and a two-year limit for environmental impact statements, which are more strict. As these statements and assessments have sometimes required four or more years to complete in the past, approvals seem likely to accelerate if the revisions go through. The proposed regulations have been celebrated by industries arguing that major infrastructure projects are subject to too many delays under the current rules.

Fostering climate denial

Coming out of the civil rights movement, Mildred McClain has long fought for justice in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia. But it wasn’t until a nearby nuclear facility began leaking radioactive chemicals into the Savannah River that she became immersed in the environmental movement.


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