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Demystifying NEPA

March 5th, 2019 by Xavier Pagan

I’d be willing to bet if I engage a client in a discussion about the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), they’d be looking for the closest door to escape through. When it comes to NEPA, clients often think it’s this cumbersome, complicated process that causes project delays, added costs and headaches. It has a reputation for not being the most expensive phase of a project, but certainly the most time consuming.  Simply put, NEPA has gotten a bad rap.

What exactly is NEPA and how can it impact a project?

Established in 1969, NEPA is a process that helps us evaluate how a project will affect the natural, physical and human environment around it. It also helps us assess what impacts remain unknown. All of the information gathered during the NEPA process is given to agencies, the general public that is impacted and other interested parties, to make recommendations on whether and how to move forward to the project’s decision makers, the lead federal agency. The lead federal agency makes an informed decision on how to proceed. Before the policy was enacted, construction projects could move forward without the use of a formal, streamlined process to determine its impact. Entire residential areas, and sensitive environmental areas could be affected without getting a consensus from those affected.

The NEPA decision is critical not only because it is important to know the environmental effects of a project on the environment and the people it could affect, but also because a project cannot advance without it since NEPA completion is used to make federal funding authorization.

Hiring a NEPA expert, not just someone who is familiar with the process, can save clients a significant amount of time and money.

In my 18  years of overseeing the NEPA process for clients and DRMP, I know a thorough NEPA evaluation starts ahead of time and it takes more than processing forms correctly. Public involvement is one of the most important components and it starts by building relationships with the agencies and the residents and business owners that will be impacted by the project. Knowing how to clearly explain how the project will affect them clears up misunderstandings and eliminates project delays.

Much of the documentation required for NEPA is also a part of the project’s permitting process. Evaluations on policies like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act must be included, which will essentially allow NEPA and permitting processes to happen concurrently. There are flexibilities in the policy that can be streamlined. I’ve been able to save as much six to nine months on a project schedule because I knew the ins and outs of the NEPA process.

Bottom line, NEPA isn’t some complicated monster you have to struggle with – if you hire someone who is able to connect the dots and simplify the process. Learn more about DRMP's Transportation Planning/Project Development services.

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