Tue, Feb

Views on Ecology Law Mixed

The 35-year-old National Environmental Policy Act is either an important protection the public has from out-of-control government or an excuse for out-of-touch bureaucrats to delay and disrupt worthwhile developments.

The 35-year-old National Environmental Policy Act is either an important protection the public has from out-of-control government or an excuse for out-of-touch bureaucrats to delay and disrupt worthwhile developments.

Both views, and several that fall somewhere in between, were offered Saturday to a congressional task force studying possible revisions to the landmark environmental law known by its acronym of NEPA.

Four members of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Republican Cathy McMorris of Colville, brought the task force's first field hearing to Spokane to a packed auditorium on the Riverpoint campus, where at least half the audience sported green lapel stickers proclaiming "I support NEPA/Democracy in action."

"NEPA is visionary but overly vague. Too often, instead of progress and results, we see conflict," McMorris told the crowd.

The law requires any proposed federal project to have a detailed statement of its environmental impacts, adverse effects and alternatives before it can be approved. When impact statements are successfully challenged in court, projects can be put on hold until the problems are corrected.

McMorris got support from some business leaders invited to address the task force. Duane Vaagen of Vaagen Brothers Lumber in Colville said the law leads to "analysis paralysis." Preparing impact studies on federal timberland scorched by fire or infested with bugs often takes so long that the damaged trees become worthless.

The process should be streamlined, he said.

Luke Russell of Coeur d'Alene Mining Co. said the law creates uncertainty, through delays and unpredictable costs. Impact studies should have a mandatory completion time so they "can't be a never-ending process." Researching and preparing an environmental impact statement for a gold mining project in Alaska cost millions of dollars and took so long that the price of gold dropped and the mine had to be shelved, he said.

Craig Urness of the Pacific Seafood Group said a recent requirement for impact statements on the different Pacific fisheries results in using three-year-old data to determine how much of the different species can be caught. NEPA is "acting as a roadblock," he said.

But U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington, the sole Democrat at the hearing, called the law an important legacy of the late Sen. Scoop Jackson and a way of making sure "agencies listen to the people they're required to protect." It has been studied four times in 10 years, he said after the hearing, and the conclusion has always been the problem isn't the law but the way agencies try to implement it.

NEPA doesn't allow people to challenge a project just because they oppose it, said Janine Blaeloch of the Western Land Exchange Project. They can only mount a successful challenge if the study is inadequate, and fixing inadequate studies leads to better projects, she said.

"Americans want to be part of our government's decisions," Blaeloch said.

Thomas Jensen, a lawyer who specializes in resolving environmental conflicts, said the law gives citizens a chance to monitor what their government wants to do, before it spends money and changes the landscape. The problem is not that impact statements must be written, but that they are so often written poorly, he said.

Washington State Transportation Director Doug MacDonald agreed, saying that impact statements need to be written in reader-friendly English: "We have 2,000-page documents that no one can read. Those days have got to stop."

Former Spokane County Commissioner John Roskelley drew applause when he said the law gives the ordinary citizen a way to encourage reasonable use of the land and counter the "our way or the highway" approach of some federal agencies.

"NEPA is about democracy," said Roskelley, adding that if Congress was looking for a law to update, it should consider the 1872 Mining Act, which allows mining for gold, silver and other hard rock minerals on public land.

Inslee said the 133-year-old mining law is relevant to NEPA, because impact statements should be required before mining companies "take our ore out of our mountains." While the research and writing of impact statement on the Alaska mining project may have cost millions, Inslee told Russell, that's a small fraction of the revenues the company expected to earn.

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said the suggestion of some groups that the task force was looking to abolish NEPA was "fear-mongering." The group was just looking for ways to make it better, he said.

But as she left the hearing room, Rachel Paschal Osborn noted that the Bush administration spent more than a year studying NEPA, and came to the conclusion the law didn't need amending, government agencies needed better standards and more co-ordination.

Osborn, a lawyer who sometimes represents the Sierra Club and who teaches environmental law at Gonzaga, said she was concerned about limits on who could sue and who could appeal. Litigation, she said, is part of the checks and balances on government power.

To see more of The Spokesman-Review, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.spokesmanreview.com. Copyright (c) 2005, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.