The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed into law in 1970, establishes Federal policy for consideration of environmental impacts during Federal planning and decision making. This law seeks to create a balance between humans and the environment by evaluating potential impacts upon the environment while fulfilling the social, economic, and technical agenda of government actions and the reasonable alternatives to those actions. In addition, this policy requires that potential major Federal action be disclosed to potentially affected parties and any comments or concerns from these parties be evaluated in the decision making process. The final result is improved Federal decision making. The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) oversees and regulates the NEPA process according to CEQs regulations (40 C.F. R. Parts 1500-1508). Each Federal agency may apply NEPA in accordance with its specific mission.
Following establishment of the Federal agency’s proposed action and the alternatives, these can be evaluated under one of three levels. These levels include Categorical Exclusion, Environmental Assessment (EA), or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Actions classified under Categorical Exclusion have been established by the agency as having no significant individual or cumulative effect on the quality of the environment or humans. If the proposed action falls outside of the agency’s definition of Categorical Exclusion or if the agency is unsure if the proposed action will have impacts, an EA or EIS will be prepared.
An EA will be prepared to determine if the proposed action and the alternatives have potentially significant environmental affects. This process involves affected or concern party participation including Federal, State, local agencies, the applicant and to the extent practicable, the public. During the preparation of the EA, the agency may alter their action to reduce the potential environmental effects. The EA process results in either a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) or the preparation of and EIS.
Agencies proposing Federal action which may have significant environmental impacts must prepare a detailed evaluation of the action and the alternatives within an EIS. This process is more extensive than a Categorical Exclusion or EA and is initiated by filing a Notice of Intent with the Federal Registrar. The scoping period is initiated by publication of the Notice of Intent and is a time in which the agency and the public establish concerns that shall be addressed within the EIS. During preparation of the EIS, a full range of alternatives must be evaluated along with the preferred alternative and the no action alternative. When the draft EIS is available for review, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will publish a Notice of Availability which initiates the 45 day public comment period. The EPA is required by law (Section 309 of the Clean Air Act) to review and comment for the public record on EISs prepared by other Federal agencies. Following this comment period, the agency will then address any issues brought forth during the draft EIS period and prepare the final EIS. A Notice of Availability for the final EIS is published by the EPA and a final 30 day review period is initiated. The process culminates with a Record of Decision (ROD) made by the agency which describes the alternatives and the final decision on which alternative to follow, and what mitigating measures the agency will take to reduce environmental impacts.