From Surviving to Thriving -- The National Environmental Policy Act and Disasters

by Joel Mintz

September 21, 2018

This post is part of CPR's From Surviving to Thriving: Equity in Disaster Planning and Recovery report. Click here to read previously posted chapters.

In August, 2017, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma brought widespread devastation to the southeastern United States, destroying buildings, flooding neighborhoods, and taking lives. Harvey shattered the national rainfall record for a single storm, dropping over 50 inches of rain in a 36-hour period. The Houston area suffered massive flooding, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers attempted to balance flooding behind strained older retention dams while releasing water to avoid dam breaches.

However, even before the unprecedented rainfall of Hurricane Harvey, severe problems had been noted at the dams. In 2016, the Army Corps noted that the dams needed repair and that a failure would be catastrophic. The federal government concluded that the dams were in critical condition in 2009. The Army Corps had multiple opportunities to evaluate the state of the dams decades before the problem reached crisis level.

In fact, despite raising the dams, rebuilding the gates, and creating various additional outflows, the Corps never did an environmental impact assessment, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for federal actions that significantly affect the quality of the human environment. The Corps’ last major construction on the dams in 2015 cost more than $100 million, but the project was not deemed significant enough to invoke the Environmental Impact Statement requirement that would have forced the federal and state agencies in charge of the dams to evaluate newer stresses, including development and climate change. Other critical infrastructure controlled by federal agencies has also received scant attention.

Hollowed Out Government Environmental Analysis

Adopted in 1969, NEPA was the first major environmental statute of the modern era. The law, which has been amended only modestly since its passage, makes environmental protection a part of the mandate of all federal agencies. It also requires that all national policies, regulations, and public laws be interpreted in accordance with the broad, environmentally protective policies that the statute declares. Although it was enacted well before natural disasters intensified by climate change became a focus of national and international concern, NEPA should be used by federal agencies to mitigate, respond to, and proactively adapt to such catastrophic events.

NEPA has particularly important implications in our world of disasters and climate change. Climate change is widely recognized by the scientific community as a significant factor in the intensification of hurricane events, flooding rains, sea level rise, and other actual or potential disasters.

NEPA expresses a bold purpose: “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 biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; [and] to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation…” To accomplish these important goals, the law states that “it is the policy of the Federal Government, in cooperation with state and local governments, and other public and private organizations, to use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance, in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man ...

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