The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA)

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 is an Act that establishes national environmental policy and goals for the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the environment and it provides a process for implementing these goals within the federal agencies.

It was society’s first attempt at systematically addressing environmental issues as well as forcing agencies to take environmental factors into consideration when making decisions. In fact, NEPA has been described as the most important and far reaching environmental and conservation measure ever enacted by Congress.

What is the purpose of NEPA?

“To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and stimulate the health and welfare of man…”

NEPA is often referred to as an umbrella policy, because multiple other laws, executive orders and regulations are considered as part of the NEPA process. The following figure is an illustration of the factors involved in the NEPA process. Not only are environmental features studied, but also impacts to the economy and society as a whole.

NEPA is triggered by Federal funding: even if only $1 of Federal money is spent, the NEPA process must be followed.

The regulations define three “classes” of actions that determine the level of NEPA documentation required.

  • Class I (Environmental Impact Statement/EIS): Actions that significantly impact the environment, for example a new controlled access freeway.
  • Class II (Categorical Exclusion/CE): Actions that do not individually or cumulatively have a significant environmental effect, such as bridge rehabilitation, reconstruction or replacement.
  • Class III (Environmental Assessment/EA): Actions in which the significance of the environmental impact is not clearly established. All actions that are not Class I or II are Class III.

SHA has a programmatic agreement with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) so that FHWA does not need to review minor activities such as drainage improvements and traffic signal installation. These actions are covered by either a Programmatic Categorical Exclusion (PCE) or a Statewide Programmatic Categorical Exclusion (SWPCE).

What happens if there are no federal actions? MEPA!

Projects that are wholly funded by the State of Maryland are subject to the Maryland Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). MEPA requires state agencies to prepare environmental effects reports for each proposed state action. SHA uses an Environmental Assessment Form (EAF) if a project uses only state funds and does not have a significant environmental impact.

Want more information? Check out the following links…

NEPAnet CEQ Task Force

Re: NEPA – FHWA’s Online “Community of Practice

FHWA Environmental Review Toolkit – Project Development

Center for Environmental Excellence by AASHTO: NEPA Process

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