Say No to National Environmental Policy Act Proposed Changes

Democracy requires the engagement of the people.

Your children and mine need you and me to give ten minutes of our time today to support the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Read on to find out why.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is one of the most, if not the most, important pieces of environmental legislation ever enacted by the U.S. Congress—so far. President Richard Nixon signed NEPA into law on January 1, 1970. Fifty years later, instead of celebrating and upholding this landmark legislation, the Trump Administration is doing everything it can to undo NEPA’s protections for people and the environment.

Before the National Environmental Policy Act, there were no national environmental laws. If you think the environment is messed up now, imagine what was going on fifty years ago when there were no restraints. Pollution was spewed into the air and water at will, pesticides were routinely sprayed everywhere, and entire ecosystems were bulldozed without a thought to make way for freeways and suburbs.

The Los Angeles Civic Center in California is smothered by smog in 1948. Click here for the image source.

Fortunately, for those of us living in the U.S. today, during the 1960s and 1970s millions of Americans called and wrote to their members of Congress and millions more took to the streets demanding a stop to the environmental degradation that was endangering the health and wellbeing of themselves, their families, and the nonhuman beings sharing the country.

Apparently, back then, Congress actually worked for the people they represented so they listened and then acted. President Nixon, no fan of government regulation himself, got on board.

Nixon established two environmentally-related federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Some of the far-reaching environmental legislation enacted by Congress and signed into law by Nixon during the 1970s included the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.

Bald Eagle in Flight at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge
Bald eagle in flight at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge – photo credit Tom Koemer, USFWS. At one point, the bald eagle, the national emblem of the United States, was considered an endangered species.

Now that you have a little background (or perhaps were reminded of stuff you already knew) about the environmental situation that led to the National Environmental Policy Act, let’s talk about the Act.

NEPA Overview

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (Public Law 91-190) is a 4 ½ page document that was probably prepared using a typewriter. The purpose of the Act was to declare a national environmental policy and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality to advise the president and oversee the regulatory process.

An Excerpt from the Law

Congress lays out its rather human-centric reasons and goals in Section 101. You will not see the words global warming or climate change, but it seems clear Congress understood that humans were changing the environment and not in a good way. They knew that people needed to change and live in harmony with the rest of nature for the benefit of the people living fifty years ago and the people who would come after them.

This part is important so it is worth reading (a couple of times if needed).

Sec. 101 (a) The Congress, recognizing the profound impact of man’s activity on the interrelations of all components of the natural environment, particularly the profound influences of population growth, high-density urbanization, industrial expansion, resource exploitation, and new and expanding technological advances and recognizing further the critical importance of restoring and maintaining environmental quality to the overall welfare and development of man, declares that it is the continuing policy of the Federal Government, in cooperation with State and local governments, and other concerned 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 and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.

(b) In order to carry out the policy set forth in this Act, it is the continuing responsibility of the Federal Government to use all practicable means, consistent with other essential considerations of national policy, to improve and coordinate Federal plans, functions, programs, and resources to the end that the Nation may—

(1) fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations;

(2) assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings;

(3) attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health or safety, or other undesirable and unintended consequences;

(4) preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage, and maintain, wherever possible, an environment which supports diversity and variety of individual choice;

(5) achieve a balance between population and resource use which will permit high standards of living and a wide sharing of life’s amenities; and

(6) enhance the quality of renewable resources and approach the maximum attainable recycling of depletable resources.

(c) The Congress recognizes that each person should enjoy a healthful environment and that each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment.

Adult Handing an Earth Globe to a Child
Photo credit – iStock/Nastco.
NEPA Requirements

NEPA requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impact of their proposed actions and projects as part of their decision-making process.

By law, these agencies must use a systematic interdisciplinary approach for evaluating impacts and alternatives. At various points in the process, they are required to make information available to the public and to allow the public to comment on it. This enables the federal government to obtain information and expertise from the public and ensures that the people have a voice in projects that may affect their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

Council on Environmental Quality

The Council on Environmental Quality is a 3-person committee whose members are appointed by the president. Per NEPA their responsibilities include advising the president on the environment, formulating policies, and preparing the president’s annual report on the environment. This report was eliminated in 1997 after Congress passed the Federal Reports Elimination and Sunset Act to reduce government paperwork.

If you are interested in learning about how NEPA works, click here for an easy to read overview prepared by ProtectNEPA.org (a coalition of nonprofits). The Council on Environmental Quality website contains useful information, too.

Hopefully, at this point, you have a basic understanding of NEPA and why it is so critically important to the health and wellbeing of people and the environment.

Next, let’s talk about why you and I need to take time out of our busy schedules today to support NEPA.

Call to Action – Support NEPA

Article II of the U.S. Constitution covers the executive powers of the president. Section 3 states “…he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed…”

The current president, Trump, is deliberately undermining and destroying regulations and policies put in place to carry out the laws enacted by Congress to protect the American people. He uses the economy as a shield for his actions intentionally ignoring the fact that a healthy environment is a critical part of the economy.

On January 1, 2020, the fiftieth anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act, Trump made it clear that he is willfully and proudly attacking this law.

“Moreover, my Administration is delivering on my promise to continue cutting burdensome regulations and has issued almost eight deregulatory actions for every one new regulation imposed over the past 3 years, helping unleash the full potential of America’s economy.”

Donald J. Trump, Presidential Message on the 50th Anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act, 01/01/20

At Trump’s request, the Council on Environmental Quality has been working on developing revised regulations for implementing NEPA. They issued their proposed changes via the Federal Register on January 10, 2020, under the guise of modernizing and clarifying the regulations.

Docket ID: CEQ-2019-0003 Update to the Regulations Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act. Click here for the docket folder.

It is a lengthy document.

Some proposed changes make sense like eliminating mandatory distribution of printed documents since everything is available electronically nowadays.

However, other proposed changes will endanger the public and the environment. This includes narrowing the range of actions and projects that would require NEPA review, eliminating the requirement to evaluate cumulative effects like climate change, and removing conflict-of-interest protections, to name a few.

Make a Public Comment

The Council on Environmental Quality is accepting public comments through March 10, 2020, at 11:59 PM ET.

Please take a few minutes to make a public comment (anonymously if you chose) telling the Council that you do not believe that their proposed changes are in the best interest of the American people or the environment. Click here to make your comment.

Thank you.

If you are interested in reading my comment, click here.

Featured Image at Top

The partially submerged Statue of Liberty is shown in heavy seas with the New York City skyline in the background – photo credit iStock/jcrosemann.

Related Posts

Resources

Environmental Impact of Sugar

What is our sweet tooth costing the planet?

The environmental impact of growing and refining sugar cane and sugar beets entwines with the health and social consequences of our desire to eat it.

As an environmentalist with a major sweet tooth, I have successfully avoided researching and writing about sugar for many years. It is not that I do not think about sugar or worry about it. I do. Sugar’s environmental footprint does concern me and I am increasingly alarmed about its role in the rise of obesity and other life-threatening diseases in the U.S. and around the world.

What was holding me back? Perhaps it was the hefty time commitment needed for the research phase. More likely it was the fear that I might learn things that would (gulp) require me to change what I eat.

In January, while I was writing 10 Easy and Green Exercise New Year’s Resolutions, I decided to bite the bullet and take on sugar. Publishing a blog post about the environmental impact of sugar became my 2019 New Year’s resolution. I did not quite make my original target publication deadline of June 30, but as you can see I came close.

Along the way, I learned way more than I bargained for so I decided to write two posts. This first post will provide a primer on sugar and an overview of its environmental impact. The second post will discuss health and social implications.

Let’s start with some basic information about sugar.

Sugar 101

Plants Produce Sucrose through Photosynthesis Infographic

Sugar is a generic name for the sweet, colorless, water-soluble compounds that occur naturally in plants and the milk of mammals, including humans.

Green plants produce a type of sugar called sucrose during photosynthesis. (Image credit The Sugar Association.)

You probably know that carbohydrates provide your body with its main source of energy and help keep your brain and internal systems functioning. Sucrose is one type of carbohydrate consisting of glucose and fructose molecules. Food sources of sucrose include fruits, vegetables, and nuts as well as foods with refined sugar added during processing.

Sugar Cane and Sugar Beets

The two major sources of refined (table sugar) are sugar cane and sugar beets because they contain the highest concentration of sucrose (about 16%). Another use for sugar cane and sugar beets is making biofuels and bioplastics (a topic deserving of its own post).

Sugar cane is a tropical grass that reaches 10-20 feet tall. It likes warm humid conditions with lots of rainfall so much of the cultivation takes place in countries near the equator. Sugar cane is a perennial plant meaning that it will grow back from its roots.

Sugar beet is a root crop that produces large off-white beets that can weigh 3-5 pounds each. Temperate climates with warm days and cool nights suit sugar beets but they may be picky about soil and moisture levels. Today, almost all sugar beets in the U.S. are grown from GMO seeds with built-in resistance to the herbicide glyphosate.

Sugar Refining

Sugar cane begins to deteriorate as soon as it is harvested so it must be transported quickly to a processing facility. On the other hand, sugar beets can be stored for several months.

Once the sugar cane or sugar beets arrive at a processing facility the refining process is fairly similar involving a lot of washing, crushing, heating, filtering, clarifying, crystallizing, and drying. This is a water and energy-intensive process.

The end product of the refining process is crystallized sugar.

Byproducts are produced along the way including fiber, press mud, and molasses. After the sugar has been extracted from the crushed cane or beets, the remaining fiber is used to generate electricity, manufactured into paper goods, or pelletized for animal feed. Press mud from the clarifying process is spread on fields as fertilizer. The molasses that is separated from the sugar crystals during centrifuging finds a ready market with the alcoholic beverage industry.

This short video will give you a quick overview of how sugar is made from sugar cane and sugar beets. There are more videos in the resources section at the end of the post.

Now, let’s talk about the environmental impact of sugar.

Environmental Issues

Both sugar cane and sugar beets are grown as monoculture crops meaning that a single type of plant covers large swaths of land uninterrupted by other crops or plants. This industrial agriculture practice is not unique to sugar and results in a host of problems.

Land

Monoculture crops crave land…well…their farmers do.

Aerial View of Sugar Cane Plantations in Northeast Brazil
This aerial view shows sugar cane plantations as far as the eye can see in Northeastern Brazil –photo credit iStock/VelhoJunio.

Nowadays, massive machines and agrochemicals make it possible for farmers to cultivate huge areas of a single crop. This encourages clearing more land for farming. Rainforests, grasslands, and wetlands are being destroyed at an alarming rate to make way for crops such as sugar cane and sugar beets.

Besides storing carbon these critical ecosystems provide habitat for a wide array of flora and fauna, nourish the soil, provide food and medicine for people, filter water, and prevent erosion and flooding.

Pesticides

Lack of biodiversity makes monocrops like sugar cane and sugar beets especially vulnerable to insects, weeds, and diseases which can wipe out an entire crop.

To combat this problem farmers rely on pesticides (poisons) to kill insects, weeds, fungi, nematodes, and rodents. Pesticides are applied to fields by low flying airplanes (crop dusters) and sprayed from tanks pulled by tractors or that are strapped onto the backs of farmworkers.

Pesticides endanger the health of farmworkers, their families, and people living, working, or going to school near fields where pesticides are applied. They kill beneficial insects, non-targeted plants, and wildlife. Toxic runoff from fields pollutes streams, lakes, and oceans as well as groundwater and drinking water supplies.

Many, if not most pests are able to quickly evolve resistance to the pesticides made to kill them. This results in agrochemical companies developing increasingly more powerful pesticides in an unending vicious cycle.

Fertilizers

Growing sugar cane and sugar beets deplete the soil of essential microorganisms and nutrients.

Farmers turn to fertilizers (usually made from fossil fuels) to provide nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but it does not last so fertilizer has to be applied for each new crop.

Wet Season Runoff from Sugar Cane Fields in Queensland, Australia
Wet season runoff from a sugar cane plantation in Queensland, Australia flows toward the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef – photo credit CSIRO. Click here to read the article.

Fertilizers runoff fields into waterways and water bodies. Because the runoff is rich in nutrients it depletes the water of oxygen creating dead zones in streams, estuaries, and lakes where nothing can live. It also contributes to problems like toxic algae blooms in the ocean.

Water

Sugar cane is a thirsty crop with water requirements similar to rice and cotton, sugar beets less so. Producing 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of sugar from sugar cane requires 390 gallons of water; sugar beets require 243 gallons of water.

To put this into perspective, one person’s drinking water requirements for slightly more than two years would be fulfilled by the water required to make just 1 kilogram of sugar.

Damming rivers and diverting streams to irrigate sugar cane and sugar beet crops jeopardize the water supply for people who live downstream. Changes in hydrology significantly impact ecosystems and the wildlife whose habitats are altered or destroyed.

Everglades Example

You have probably heard the real estate phrase, “Location, location” meaning that where a property is located is a top priority for buyers. This concept translates to farmland, too. Some locations provide better conditions for crops than others and some result in substantially more environmental damage than others.

Let’s talk about the Florida Everglades.

Sawgrass Prairie at Everglades National Park
Sawgrass prairie at the Everglades National Park – photo credit G. Gardner/Everglades National Park Service.

The Everglades watershed is a one-of-a-kind subtropical wetland ecosystem that has been known as the river of grass ever since Marjory Stoneman Douglas published her book The Everglades: River of Grass in 1947.

The amazing biodiversity of the Everglades draws tourists from all over the world. It teems with wildlife including more than 360 species of birds and an extensive variety of plants from sawgrass to pine trees to orchids.

Florida Panther in Everglades National Park

The Everglades is home to dozens of threatened or endangered species such as the Florida panther (shown here), American crocodile, snail kite, wood stork, and West Indian manatee. (Photo credit Rodney Cammauf/NPS.)

Wetlands filter out pollutants, replenish aquifers and reduce flooding. About a third of Floridians rely on the Everglades watershed for drinking water as do the farmers of hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural fields.

Growing sugar cane is a major contributor to the destruction of the irreplaceable Everglades.

Converting the northern sections of the Everglades watershed into agricultural land, mostly to grow sugar cane, has resulted in a major loss of habitat. Phosphorus runoff from the sugar cane fields and water flow disruptions from Lake Okeechobee represent some of the gravest dangers to the health of the Everglades.

If you are interested in learning more about Florida sugar cane and the multi-billion dollar state and federal project to restore the Everglades, there are links in the resources section.

This is a prime example of how taxpayers end up footing the bill for the damage caused by businesses and industries that externalize health and environmental costs.

Sustainability Efforts

There are some farmers growing sugar cane and sugar beets in a more environmentally and people-friendly manner, but this represents only a small segment of the enormous sugar industry. Organizations supporting these efforts include Bonsucro, Fairtrade, and Rainforest Alliance.

In addition, people concerned about GMOs in their food are pushing for more organic sugar, which precludes the use of GMOs and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

These are steps in the right direction that you can support with your wallet whenever you buy sugar and foods that contain sugar.

Featured Image at Top: Sugar beets growing in a field – photo credit iStock/stevanovicigor.

Related Posts

Resources

Resources – Everglades