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Save public input to help save the environment

When first proposed about a decade ago, it seemed like a promising means to revive the Chesapeake Bay's devastated oyster crop: Bring in Chinese oysters, which are impervious to the diseases killing the native stock and also grow faster. If successful, the plan would resurrect an oyster industry that was nearly wiped out as the native oyster population dwindled to barely 1 percent of what it was decades ago.

But under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a major step such as introducing an alien species into an ecosystem requires a thorough environmental review by the federal government. More than 2,000 comments poured into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Scientists, federal agencies and other coastal states raised numerous red flags about the Chinese oysters' potential dangers, many of them irreversible, including harm to the remaining native stock and possible threats to human health.

After carefully weighing all the evidence, and considering a number of alternate solutions, the Corps ruled that the Chinese oysters posed "unacceptable ecological risks." Result: a reinvigorated effort to bring back the native species, which so far seems to be paying off.

The episode marked another success for NEPA, one of our nation's most important environmental laws — which is now under attack. As it has in so many other cases involving the bay and elsewhere in the region, NEPA allowed for a full public airing of the potential consequences, good and bad, of the proposed action, and consideration of better alternatives.

Safeguarding our health, our environment and our right to be heard was precisely the purpose of NEPA when it was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority and signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970. Known as the "environmental Magna Carta," it protects citizens from precipitous federal action by demanding government transparency and accountability.

NEPA is based on a simple concept: When the federal government undertakes or approves a major project — for example, a highway or a large water project — it should look before it leaps. It is required to understand the environmental impact of the project and consider alternatives that are less damaging. The government isn't required to pick the least harmful alternative but must make its final choice in full knowledge of the consequences.

An initial environmental impact statement discloses the risks and gives the public a chance to voice objections, suggest improvements and propose alternatives. Agencies are required to heed this input. Time and again, the result has been just as the law intended: a better-designed project with less impact and more public support.

But some in Congress want to gut this basic "right to know." Provisions tacked onto an important water bill now in the Senate are provisions that would fundamentally weaken this successful environmental review process.

The $12 billion Water Resources Development Act, which funds the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, contains many important flood protection and wetlands projects and was unanimously voted out of committee. Now ready for action on the Senate floor, the bill lamentably also contains language that would sharply tilt the scales toward approval of projects, regardless of the environmental damage.

Specifically, two provisions set unreasonably short deadlines for completing even the most complex reviews of Corps proposals and impose harsh fines on agencies that take too long. This will push agency officials into slapdash reviews just to avoid the penalties. Supporters, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and normally a staunch defender of the environment, say they're merely "streamlining" NEPA. In fact, they are steamrolling over the public's right to participate in key government decisions.

NEPA opponents say it bogs down important projects, but studies show most delays are due to funding or other issues. Even the Corps likes NEPA as is. In a letter to Congress, a Corps official said NEPA and similar laws "provide transparency, support informed decision making and promote strong environmental outcomes." It urged Congress not to "prescribe regulatory deadlines."

The Senate should demand that these provisions be struck from the legislation during the current floor debate. In the bay and elsewhere, NEPA has proved its value, and has been emulated worldwide. The watchword should be: "Never Eliminate Public Advice."

Karla Raettig is executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. Her email is kraettig@mdlcv.org.

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