NEPA Compliance and Hurricane Rebuilding

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) establishes policies that apply to all federal government actions. It is best known for establishing environmental review processes on federal agency actions. NEPA requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions.

To meet NEPA requirements, federal agencies typically prepare a detailed statement known as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for every proposed action with a major environmental impact. A draft version of the EIS is made available to the public for a comment period (usually 60 days). The public comments are then incorporated into the final version of the document and then released for another public comment period (30 days). The final EIS is reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for adherence to current environmental laws.

NEPA regulations (agency guidance for enforcing the law) provide for a variation on the EIS process in emergency situations. A federal agency has the responsibility to implement an alternative arrangement for emergency actions that will cause significant impacts to the environment. Alternative arrangements are implemented in cooperation with The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the federal and state resource agencies. Alternative arrangements do not waive the requirement to comply with NEPA, but establish an alternative means for compliance.

The greater New Orleans area was in an emergency situation after Hurricane Katrina caused breaching and overtopping of many levees and floodwalls. The USACE New Orleans District designed a unique alternative arrangement in cooperation with CEQ to achieve NEPA compliance in an expedited process so that the repair and rebuilding of levees could be completed in a time frame commensurate with the emergency conditions in New Orleans.. The arrangement involves the issuance of an Individual Environmental Report (IER) for each proposed action. The Corps facilitates public meetings to discuss the IERs which, like an EIS, contain alternatives to hurricane risk reduction project plans. The public is encouraged to participate in this process via public meetings, written comments, or by visiting the New Orleans District internet site established to focus exclusively on NEPA compliance and public involvement:

NEPA Compliance Through Alternative Arrangement - FAQ

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 What is the goal of compliance through alternative arrangements?
The goal of compliance through alternative arrangements is to accelerate the rebuilding of hurricane protection projects without compromising adherence to federal environmental policies. The alternative arrangement process retains the spirit and intent of the NEPA requirements by providing extensive public input, interagency coordination and consideration of alternatives, impact assessments and identification of any necessary mitigation.
 Are NEPA requirements circumvented under this arrangement?
No. NEPA compliance through alternative arrangements does not result in a lesser quality or level of environmental detail than required by NEPA regulations.

 To which projects do these alternative NEPA arrangements apply?
An alternative NEPA compliance process is being applied to select 4th, 5th, and 6th Supplemental projects in order to initiate construction of projects focused on the 100-year level of protection in a timely manner.

 Why isn’t work under the 3rd Supplemental covered under alternative NEPA arrangements?
Most 3rd Supplemental projects return the hurricane and storm damage reduction system to its originally authorized level of protection, for which NEPA compliance was achieved through a variety of Environmental Impact Statements and Environmental Assessments that were conducted when the projects were originally authorized and funded.

 How is environmental assessment work organized?
The environmental assessments for the Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction System are organized into Individual Environmental Reports (IERs) for groups of projects based on similarity of environmental issues, construction features and independent utility within a given hydrologic unit or sub-basin. Where possible, a single IER covers all projects within a particular sub-basin. In some cases, however, projects within a single sub-basin have drastically different utility, impacts or design schedules. If such projects were to be combined into a single sub-basin IER, critical emergency actions would be unduly delayed, running counter to the intent behind complying with NEPA through alternative arrangements. It is important to note, though, that although separate IERs are being prepared in such sub-basins, the cumulative impacts analysis within these IERs are being conducted in order to provide a comprehensive incorporation of all project impacts within the sub-basin.
 What processes and information do the Individual Environmental Reports entail?
The Individual Environmental Report describes a range of alternatives for fulfilling the purpose and need of the project, a thorough analysis of direct, indirect and cumulative impacts for these alternatives based on best-available information, and a mitigation plan for unavoidable impacts.
 What does “sub-basin” mean in the context of these alternative arrangements?
In this context, a sub-basin is the geographic area protected by a specific component of the Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction System; in general, sub-basins are hydrologically independent units.

 What are the timelines for each Individual Environmental Report (IER)?
Each IER has a different timeline that depends largely on the complexity of the project design and the environmental issues involved in the alternatives.
 Is USACE working with other federal Agencies?
The Corps has coordinated the alternative arrangements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and other federal, state and local stakeholders.

 If an IER only looks at some of the projects, how does the Corps ensure a systematic approach to impacts analysis?
First, each IER addresses the cumulative impacts of a project and its relationship to all the other projects currently authorized in the greater New Orleans area and the work reasonably foreseeable in the future. Second, USACE will develop a Comprehensive Environmental Document which comprehensively addresses all the projects in the system and integrates findings from all IERs.

 Do the alternative arrangements cover any projects involving Category 5 hurricane protection?
Congress has only authorized the studying of the practicality of constructing to Category 5 level of protection, but such projects may be included as a reasonably foreseeable future project in the cumulative impacts analysis of the IERs.

 Will this set a precedent for the USACE NEPA process for other projects?
No. The alternative arrangements are a unique process related directly to the Hurricane Katrina event. Alternative arrangements are implemented by federal agencies on a case-by-case basis if it is determined that a risk to life, health, property or severe economical loss is imminent.

 How will USACE ensure public involvement in this process?
A series of public meetings will be the cornerstone of the public involvement process, offering the public extensive access to the Corps’ planning process. Each Draft IER will be posted on the Internet for a 30-day public review period. A notice of availability will be mailed/e-mailed out to interested parties advising them of the availability of the IER for review. The public will also have the opportunity to request a public hearing.

 Do alternative arrangements jeopardize adequate mitigation of environmental impacts associated with construction of the HSDRRS?
No. Mitigation plans will be developed and implemented early in the process in cooperation with federal, state and local agencies and public stakeholders if it is determined that there are unavoidable impacts to the environment. Ultimately, the Comprehensive Environmental Document will tie all the mitigation requirements into a comprehensive report on unavoidable impacts of work and mitigation for planned development, and implementation for further impacts caused by the work.