The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law in 1969 and has been working hard ever since to meet important economic development needs while protecting the environment for people, creatures and natural habitats.

NEPA applies when the federal government is involved in a development project – usually through funding or federal permits. Example projects are airports, train tracks, malls, dams, prisons and parks.

NEPA incorporates a rigorous evaluation of the project’s environmental impacts as input into the development process. The organization leading the project works hand-in-hand with various stakeholders, the public and government agencies to ensure projects are evaluated and decisions are made in a timely manner.

Each project is assigned what is called a lead agency – the organization within the federal government that oversees the NEPA process for the project. Example lead agencies are the US Forest Service and the Department of Transportation.  

The lead agency decides which of three types of documentation will be required: Categorical Exclusion, Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Each one is more involved than the next.

The general public can review submissions and provide feedback in multiple ways, often through local public meetings and hearings. The lead agency makes the final decision about whether or not the project moves forward and how.

Since NEPA was signed into law, more than 25,000 EISs have been issued. Today, approximately 50,000 EAs and 500 EISs are prepared each year.

Learn more about how NEPA works by following a real-world project example through the evaluation process at CSX.com.

Transcript

[Announcer] Remember that sad little bill on Capital Hill? Meet a much perkier bill who was signed into law almost 50 years ago and has been working ever since to meet important economic development needs while protecting the environment for people, creatures, and habitats. The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, of 1969, applies when the Federal Government is involved in a development project, usually through funding or federal permits. These projects can include airports, bridges, dams, parks, and train tracks. NEPA incorporates a rigorous evaluation of the project's environmental impacts as input into the development process. The organization leading the project works hand in hand with various stake holders, the public, and government agencies to ensure projects are evaluated and decisions are made in a timely manner.

As a leading provider of transportation services in the US, CSX regularly participates in the NEPA process. The CSX Tranportation Network stretches across 21,000 miles of track in 23 different states and is still growing to meet the needs of expanding population. Let's say CSX wants to add to or change existing rail lines. For example, to upgrade a bridge or tunnel, it needs federal permitting. The project would be assigned what is called a lead agency. The organization within the federal government that oversees the NEPA process for the project. That agency would decide which one of three types of documentation is necessary based on the project goals and the construction options that would meet them. Each type of documentation is more involved than the next. One option is called categorical exclusion which is used if a project meets criteria that have been shown to have limited environmental impact in the past. The second type is environmental assessment which is used when the lead agency is unsure of the significance of environmental impact. The third type is an environmental impact statement which is a more detailed evaluation of all possible environmental impacts when significant impacts are anticipated. The general public can review submissions and provide feedback in multiple ways, often through local public meetings and/or hearings.

The lead agency, after taking everything it's learned into account, then makes a decision about whether or not the project moves forward and how. The agency's goal is to choose the option that balances impact to the environment, local communities, habitats and species, without stifling the jobs and growth that these projects represent yet fulfilling the needs of the project. Since NEPA was signed into law, more than 25,000 environment impact statements have been issued. Today, approximately 50,000 environmental assessments and 500 environmental impact statements are prepared each year. Don't worry about all that paper. Since 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, accepts electronic NEPA documentation submissions. NEPA remains a significant force to balance economic development with environmental responsibility in every US community, including yours.