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Why You Should Care about... Protecting North Carolina's Environment

On August 4, President Trump signed a bipartisan, generational bill that will do much to help preserve and protect North Carolina’s 10 national parks and four national forests. The Great American Outdoors Act authorizes funds for long-overdue maintenance as well as for land and water conservation projects, not only in the Tarheel State’s national parks and forests, but in public lands across the U.S.

Sadly, the new law is the only positive development in national environmental policy that has taken place since January 20, 2017. Other than this landmark bill, the Trump Administration’s record in conserving the nation’s land, clean air and water is abysmal.

Whether it’s America’s unilateral withdrawal from the Paris climate change treaty, the fundamental weakening of the nation’s clean air and water laws, or the evisceration of policies to reduce dependence on oil, gas and coal, Republicans have brought to an abrupt halt national progress toward a clean, healthy environment for ourselves and future generations.

Among Trump’s many less-than-useful “reforms” in environmental policy is the weakening of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Known in some quarters as the “Magna Carta” of environmental law, the 1970 statute requires federal agencies to consider how a proposed project or action will affect the environment before issuing development permits. The law also requires public review and comment on proposed projects.

The government’s findings on the impact of each project under review are contained in an “Environmental Impact Statements” (EIS). Sometimes, finding a consensus takes time. The EIS on the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet at the Outer Banks took years to complete, because it was difficult for competing interests to agree on an EIS. President Trump pointed to the length of time it took to complete the EIS as proof of the need to change regulations associated with NEPA. He vowed to do something about it.

Last September, he did. The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new set of regulations designed to weaken NEPA, reducing the requirements to complete an EIS and limiting public participation. The new rules are scheduled to go into effect September 14. But a lawsuit filed in July by 17 environmental organizations argues the administration sidestepped the legal process to change the law. The suit may delay but not necessarily prevent implementation of the new rules.

What do the new regulations mean to residents of coastal North Carolina? The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing a project to widen and deepen the channel in the Cape Fear River connecting Wilmington’s port to the Atlantic. Since the project won’t start before the new rules go into effect, the government could overlook or minimize damage the enlarged channel would have on the delicate Cape Fear River’s ecosystem. And, as the environmental organization Clean Air Carolina observed, the impacts on air quality caused by heavy-duty industrial equipment and construction traffic could affect the health of nearby residents.

If we believe the health of our citizens could be affected, why not exercise the full authority of NEPA as intended by Congress in 1970 to know for certain? Wouldn’t it be worth a few extra months to find out?

The Trump Administration says no.

Conservation of the national forests in North Carolina could also be affected by the new NEPA regulations. For example, timber projects in the Croatan National Forest north of Wilmington would no longer benefit from public input. In fact, contractors bidding on a timber project within the forest could write the EIS without input from citizens living near the proposed project.

Imagine waking up one morning to find your neighborhood’s greatest asset was just destroyed by a timber company.

What about drilling for oil and gas in our offshore waters? Without the full force of NEPA, what could Brunswick County do (assuming a new and more environmentally conscious County Commission) to prevent fossil fuel companies from fouling the waters off our beaches? How do you explain to your kids the smelly black patches of oil floating on the water within their reach?

The Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law days after the lawsuit against the new NEPA rules were filed. It is ironic President Trump used the law to burnish his non-existent image as a conservationist the same time he was being sued to prevent the hollowing out of a foundational environmental statute.

“We believe Americans know best how to conserve this magnificent land that we love and cherish and adore,” Trump said at the signing ceremony for the new law. Conservationists and environmentalists in North Carolina and throughout the country would agree. That’s why, they say, we need a full-throated NEPA — not Trump’s anemic version — to make sure the voice of the American people continues to be heard in matters affecting their environment.

Arthur Hill

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