From: Matthew Daly, Associated Press
Published December 23, 2005 12:00 AM

House Task Force Recommends Changes To Speed Federal Projects

WASHINGTON — A House task force is recommending changes to a landmark environmental law to speed up road and other federal projects that lawmakers say are frequently plagued by delays.


Republican leaders say they hope to find ways to streamline the 35-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which serves as the basis for federal management of public lands.


The GOP-dominated panel issued a draft report this week after studying the issue for eight months. The draft will be open to public comment for 45 days, with a final report expected in February.


The 30-page draft report recommends a number of changes, including one to address delays associated with NEPA. At a series of public hearings across the country, witnesses complained about that lawsuits -- or even the treat of a lawsuit -- can add years and millions of dollars to the cost of a new road, housing development or other project.


One way to prevent delays is to narrow the definition of what constitutes a major federal action, which under the law requires lengthy study and public comment before moving forward, the report said. All too often, projects that are not major are treated as if they were, leading to unnecessary delays, it said.


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"The task force was presented with numerous examples and reasons that 'delay' has become synonymous with the NEPA process," the report said.


One reason is the lack of clear timelines and milestones for federal agencies, the report said. Another is lack of coordination among agencies involved in environmental projects.


A key reason for the delays is the increasing length and heft and NEPA-related documents, the report said. In 2000, the average size of an environmental impact statement was 742 pages; guidelines of the Council on Environmental Quality recommend that a normal EIS be less than 150 pages and a complex study be less than 300 pages.


The report also complained about the increased threat of lawsuits and recommended changes to clarify how citizens who object to a project can do so without filing a costly and time-consuming lawsuit.


Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., the task force chairwoman, called the report the product of extensive work during seven months of public hearings and consideration of thousands of public comments.


A spokeswoman for Democrats on the House Resources Committee called the report a "Republican draft document" and said Democrats who serve on the task force had no part in drafting it. Democrats will review the report "and look forward to the comments," spokeswoman Kristen Bossi said.


Source: Associated Press


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