The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA)

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 established national environmental policy and goals for the protection, maintenance and enhancement of the environment. It gives federal agencies a process for implementing these goals.

NEPA was the federal government's first attempt at systematically addressing environmental issues and compelling agencies to consider environmental factors when making decisions. In fact, NEPA has been described as the most important and far-reaching conservation measure enacted by Congress.

What is the purpose of NEPA?

“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 stimulate the health and welfare of man…”

NEPA is often called an umbrella policy, because multiple laws, executive orders and regulations are considered in the NEPA process. The following figure illustrates the factors involved in the NEPA process. Not only are environmental features studied; so are impacts to the economy and society.

NEPA umbrella

NEPA is triggered by federal funding: even if only $1 of Federal money is spent, the NEPA process must be followed.

The regulations define three “classes” of actions that determine the level of NEPA documentation required.

  • Class I (Environmental Impact Statement/EIS): Actions that significantly impact the environment, for example a new controlled access freeway.
  • Class II (Categorical Exclusion/CE): Actions that do not individually or cumulatively have a significant environmental effect, such as bridge rehabilitation, reconstruction or replacement.
  • Class III (Environmental Assessment/EA): Actions whose environmental impact is not clearly established. All actions that are not Class I or II are deemed Class III.

The Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) has a programmatic agreement with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) so — FHWA does not review minor activities, such as drainage improvements and traffic signal installation. These actions are covered by either a Programmatic Categorical Exclusion (PCE) or a Statewide Programmatic Categorical Exclusion (SWPCE).

What happens if there are no federal actions? MEPA!

Projects that are wholly funded by the State of Maryland are subject to the Maryland Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). MEPA requires State agencies to prepare environmental effects reports for each proposed state action. MDOT SHA uses an Environmental Assessment Form (EAF) if a project uses only State funds and has no significant environmental impact.

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