This op-ed was originally published in The Hill.
A few weeks ago, the Army Corps of Engineers made a startling announcement: It would give Sharon Lavigne and her neighbors in St. James Parish, La., a chance to tell their stories. The fact one of the world’s largest chemical companies has fought for years to keep Lavigne quiet tells you how commanding her stories are. Those stories may stop this particular company from building a multi-billion dollar chemical plant surrounding her neighborhood.
For this, we can thank a simple law, signed by President Nixon in 1970, called the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Unlike other environmental laws, NEPA doesn’t tell agencies what choices they must make — like where to erect a levee or whether to permit a plastics plant. But it does insist their choices be informed. So, before the Army Corps can approve a company’s wetlands development permit it has to study whatever effects that chemical plant might have on the health of people in that community and on the properties they own.
One critical way that agencies like the Army Corp learn about such effects is by giving people — particularly local residents a chance to share their concerns in their own words. You don’t need a degree in law or chemistry to have a say, although sometimes it takes a dose of courage. It’s not easy to speak or write publicly about having to cook with tainted tap water, visiting with neighbors on a foul-smelling porch, or dreading some rare cancer that’s been associated with your zip code. As far as NEPA is concerned, those stories are just as important as ones that global chemical companies have to tell.
Read the full op-ed in The Hill.