Detroit – ground zero for discussion of cumulative effects?

24 Sep 2012

Recently, the Detroit chapter of the Sierra Club wrote to ask the EPA to require evaluations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) address cumulative effects of NEPA decisions for the State of Michigan.  Apparently, the request seeks to have EPA include both environmental and socioeconomic effect in such evaluations.  If EPA were to take up this gauntlet , it could be a paradigm shift that would reverberate across the country.

NEPA was one of the first laws written establishing a national framework for protecting the environment. NEPA’s basic goal is that all branches of the federal government consider the environment before undertaking any major federal action (people remember the spotted owl and snail darter but not why – they were species that were thought to be at risk from NEPA regulated projects).  NEPA requirements are invoked when airports, buildings, military complexes, highways, parkland purchases, and other federal activities are proposed.  Environmental Assessments (EAs) and Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) evaluate the likelihood of impacts from alternative courses of action and are (i) required from all Federal agencies and (ii) often the most visible NEPA requirements.

EPA has, for some time, recommended that agencies conducting a NEPA analysis consider cumulative impacts from a proposed action, take into account likely future actions as well. However, the focus of that evaluation was primarily on environmental impacts. The Sierra Club appears to ask for the quantum leap of requiring consideration of socioeconomic factors such as income, racial composition and health impacts. This would add an “environmental justice” aspect to the NEPA analysis that was not previously present. The request focuses on southwest Detroit, which is home to a number of heavy industrial operations due to its history and close proximity to shipping and rail lines.

Cumulative impact analysis, particularly focusing on future actions, tends to be more subjective and speculative than the rest of the NEPA evaluation and is harder, less accurate and more subject to challenge.  If EPA were to go in this direction, one can only imagine the number of economic developments that would come to a grinding halt while these even more subjective issues are hashed out.

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