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US - “Death by a thousand cuts”: How Congress continues to whittle away at a critical environmental policy

A bipartisan bill aims to rollback parts of the landmark National Environmental Policy Act.

A bipartisan transportation bill moving through Congress contains provisions that would significantly undermine the federal environmental review process for infrastructure projects like highways, railroads, and bridges, environmentalists and policy experts say.

Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021. Buried in the bill’s 540 pages of text are rollbacks to one of the country’s most important environmental laws, the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. The rollbacks excuse certain categories of infrastructure projects from the environmental review process, establish time and page limits on environmental reviews, and expand a program that gives individual states authority over reviews. Taken separately, the provisions seem to only tweak NEPA, but critics say they are part of a long-term effort by Republicans to whittle away at the law’s authority and could have significant impacts on communities across the country.

“It’s making swiss cheese of the NEPA statute by putting an increasing number of holes in it,” said Deron Lovaas, a senior policy advisor at the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC.

Enacted in 1970, NEPA was the first major environmental law in the United States and has been referred to as the “Magna Carta” of federal environmental laws. It was created to ensure that agencies fully consider the environmental consequences of their actions and explore lower-impact alternatives. It’s also an important civil rights policy, guaranteeing that communities are included in the development process of nearby projects, like highways.

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