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Protecting Our Voices in Washington, D.C.

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On Tuesday in Washington D.C., the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) held its final hearing on the Trump administration’s anti-democratic, racist, and deeply destructive plan to roll back the rules that make the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) so powerful.

The Trump administration planned just two public hearings on their proposed rollback of what is commonly described as the “Magna Carta” of environmental law. But Sierra Club staff and volunteers, along with leaders from environmental justice, labor, and Indigenous groups, were determined to make their voices heard regardless. They testified about what this essential environmental protection means to them at the hearing and a midday rally. Some had had to travel more than a thousand miles to do so.

“[NEPA] is a policy that allows me and you to stand up against corporations, oil tycoons, terrible industries, and the federal government itself,” said first-generation college student and Sierra Club volunteer Manuel Ayala at the rally. “It gives people like us a voice.”

NEPA requires federal agencies to identify any significant environmental, economic, social, or health impacts of a project before decisions are made and construction begins. This ensures the impacts of new major federal projects like pipelines, mines, and highways are considered and made public. NEPA also ensures that the public is given the chance to participate in the decision-making process. In many cases, it provides the only chance they’ll have to do so.

The proposed rollbacks would limit the number of projects that have to undergo environmental review and make those reviews less thorough. They would also allow corporations to conduct the reviews themselves, or through handpicked consultants, opening the door to serious conflicts of interest. In a nutshell, these rollbacks deprive communities of necessary information about major, potentially environmentally destructive projects.

Even worse, these proposed rollbacks eliminate the requirement to consider the “cumulative impact” of a project. That’s a huge deal for our climate, since climate catastrophe is considered one of those “cumulative impacts.” 

Emma Haydocy, director of Florida Bay Forever, talked about how her Florida Keys community was already suffering from severe flooding due to sea-level rise. “We cannot allow the current administration to codify climate denial,” she said. “Without NEPA, the Florida Keys will be lost to the seas in the decades to come. Without NEPA, my community ceases to exist.”

A project’s “cumulative impact” isn’t just its contribution to climate change. It’s also how much the project worsens a community’s overall pollution burden. It’s especially important to consider that cumulative impact when talking about projects proposed in communities where there are already multiple sources of toxins or harmful pollution — which are disproportionately likely to be communities of color and low-income communities.

“If the CEQ allows our voices to be silenced we will see the government take on anti-public interest projects, we will see less transparency, less accountability, and more dangerous corporations have free range to do whatever they want as they continue to silence the protests and ignore our health,” Ayala said.

The proposed NEPA rollback is just one in a series of giveaways from the Trump administration to their pals in polluting industries. In every case, it’s ordinary people — especially people of color and low-income people — who are set to pay the price.

If you missed the hearing, you can still take a stand against this attack on your foundational environmental and civil rights. Submit a public comment today, and make sure to add a personalized message about what NEPA means to you.

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