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What You Should Know

The People’s Environmental Law: The National Environmental Policy Act

Learn how the National Environmental Policy Act helps communities protect themselves from dangerous, rushed or poorly planned federal projects — and join us in advocating for it.
What You Should Know

The People’s Environmental Law: The National Environmental Policy Act

Learn how the National Environmental Policy Act helps communities protect themselves from dangerous, rushed or poorly planned federal projects — and join us in advocating for it..
Navajo community leader Daniel Tso speaks out against fracking at a Bureau of Land Management meeting that was required under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. NEPA gives communities a chance to speak out against projects that will impact them.
Steven St. John for Earthjustice
Navajo community leader Daniel Tso speaks out against fracking at a Bureau of Land Management meeting that was required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The law gives communities a chance to speak out against projects that will impact them.

When the government wants to build a toxic waste incinerator in your neighborhood, run a dangerous pipeline past your child’s school, or put a massive, costly freeway on top of a wetland, a federal law gives you the right to find out and fight back.

That law is the National Environmental Policy Act. It was gutted during the Trump administration. Alongside a nationwide coalition of groups, Earthjustice challenged this polluter power grab in court. The Biden administration now has the opportunity to restore the protections of this important law.

Learn how the National Environmental Policy Act protects you:

Watch how NEPA enabled residents of Arecibo to uncover the truth behind a waste incinerator project.

What Does the Law Say?

The National Environmental Policy Act, the nation’s oldest environmental law, has a simple mandate with a major impact. It ensures the federal government informs and engages the public it serves. The three basic principles of NEPA are:

1. Transparency

When the federal government wants to build or fund a project like a highway, port, dam or prison, it must first disclose its plans to the public. NEPA guarantees that the public is informed of these plans because, after all, the public will have to live with the project’s consequences.

2. Informed Decision-Making

As the federal government prepares to build or fund a project, it must conduct a detailed study of:
  • how the project will be built
  • the consequences of the project (good or bad) for local communities
  • alternative ways to develop the project that still meet the government’s needs but better protect people and the  environment
  • measures that can be taken to lessen any harmful impacts of the project

3. Giving the Public a Voice

Before a project is started and throughout its development, the federal government must ask the public — including local communities — to voice concerns. They must also ask for local expertise regarding the project. This is arguably the most important pillar of NEPA; it draws on our democratic values to ensure that projects are undertaken with the benefit of our communities in mind. Public input leads to better developed projects with greater consensus and protections for our health and environment.

What Has the National Environmental Policy Act Achieved?

Since Congress passed NEPA in 1970, the law has saved lives, preserved community integrity, protected endangered species and public land and saved billions of dollars, too.
Over the years, NEPA has often been the first and last line of defense against government mismanagement and industry abuse. NEPA success stories can be found across the nation. Here are just a few examples:
For six years, Arecibo residents have used NEPA to halt a waste-to-energy incinerator, which a corporation wants to build in an area already contaminated with lead, arsenic and other heavy metals.
Alejandro Davila / Earthjustice
For six years, Arecibo residents have used NEPA to halt a waste-to-energy incinerator, which a corporation wants to build in an area already contaminated with lead, arsenic and other heavy metals.

On the northern coast of Puerto Rico, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the National Environmental Policy Act has for the past six years helped the town of Arecibo breathe a little easier. There, residents have used NEPA’s critical safeguards to halt a waste-to-energy incinerator that would operate in an area already contaminated with heavy metals.

The incinerator, which proponents hope will get federal financing, would reportedly burn more than 2,000 tons of trash a day less than two miles from the largest wetland in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico residents face 2.5 times the death rate from asthma as residents of the mainland United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so the incinerator’s toxic fumes would be dumped into the air in an already at-risk community.

As Puerto Rico rebuilds from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the last thing it needs is another blow to its environmental health. For Arecibo — and many other communities around the country — NEPA offers life-saving protection.

If it weren’t for NEPA, Arecibo residents would have few tools to fight an incinerator that could further pollute the town's air and harm nearby wildlife. NEPA forced government agencies to conduct public hearings and an environmental impact review on the incinerator project.
Alejandro Davila / Earthjustice
If it weren’t for NEPA, Arecibo residents would have few tools to fight an incinerator that could further pollute the town's air and harm nearby wildlife. NEPA forced government agencies to conduct public hearings and an environmental impact review on the incinerator project.
Cinta Kaipat, Tinian and Pågan:
“We will fight this fight without firing a shot. The military will sit up and take notice and hear our voices.”
Cinta Kaipat is a resident of Saipan who has been fighting to return to her home island of Pågan. Pågan was evacuated years ago due to a volcanic eruption, but now former residents are prevented from returning. The U.S. military wants to turn Pågan—and the nearby island of Tinian—into a live-fire training area. Kaipat is a client in an Earthjustice lawsuit that is using NEPA to protect Pågan and Tinian.
Lauren Benson for Earthjustice
Cinta Kaipat is a resident of Saipan who has been fighting to return to her home island of Pågan. Pågan was evacuated years ago due to a volcanic eruption, but now former residents are prevented from returning. The U.S. military wants to turn Pågan—and the nearby island of Tinian—into a live-fire training area. Kaipat is a client in an Earthjustice lawsuit that is using NEPA to protect Pågan and Tinian.

Prime farmland, fisheries, beaches, forests and coral reefs — now at risk in the North Pacific — are also benefiting from the defensive power of National Environmental Policy Act. The U.S. government wants to conduct destructive war games on two islands, Tinian and Pågan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. There, mostly indigenous and low-income U.S. citizens are using NEPA to compel the U.S. Navy to consider the devastating effects that artillery, rockets and bombardment could have on their tropical homeland and sacred sites. Training could make it impossible for formerly displaced families to return to Pågan and could also disrupt access to vital emergency medical care.

If it weren’t for NEPA, low-income families and community leaders in the Northern Marianas would have little chance to protect their lands and livelihoods.

Pictured, clockwise from the top left: Gus Castro on Apå'an Santatti Beach on Pågan. The beach is one site where the U.S. military wants to do live-fire training and practice amphibious landings. A Japanese bomber lies near the airstrip on Pågan. Relics from WWII litter the island. Guma Taga, an archeological site on the island. The site is filled with lattes, ancient stone supports that were used in construction. Earthjustice attorney David Henkin speaks with a client on Pågan.
Dan Lin for Earthjustice
Pictured, clockwise from the top left: Gus Castro on Apå'an Santatti Beach on Pågan. The beach is one site where the U.S. military wants to do live-fire training and practice amphibious landings. A Japanese bomber lies near the airstrip on Pågan. Relics from WWII litter the island. Guma Taga, an archeological site on the island. The site is filled with lattes, ancient stone supports that were used in construction. Earthjustice attorney David Henkin speaks with a client on Pågan.

What can the Biden administration do to fix NEPA?

In October 2021, the Biden administration announced an effort to roll back the most egregious attacks on NEPA by the Trump administration. To fix NEPA, the Biden administration must:
  • Address Conflicts of Interest: The Trump regulations allowed industries to prepare their own environmental reviews, introducing fatal bias to the review process. Reversing this will help restore the integrity of NEPA as the necessary legal recourse for communities to fight polluting projects and industries.
  • Restore Explicit Requirements for Alternatives: The Trump regulations limited consideration of alternative proposals that would be less damaging to the environment and local communities. The new regulation must empower agencies to consider such alternatives once more.
  • Account for Cumulative and Future Impacts: Future infrastructure projects must address the many issues impacting communities and ensure future decisions include the impacts of climate change.
  • Strengthen Public Input: The Trump regulations effectively silenced the voices of communities that wanted a say in the projects built in their backyards. These harmful provisions must be restored to guarantee more robust public participation and ensure NEPA continues to be a legal recourse for environmental justice communities to fight for their right to clean air and clean water.
Please join us in contacting the Biden administration and telling it that NEPA must be strengthened to protect our communities.
NEPA allowed these individuals to advocate for removing four dams on the lower Snake River to restore wild salmon runs. They are four of the more than 480,000 people who made their voices heard on this issue. Pictured, clockwise from the top left, are former Idaho Fish and Game biologist Steve Pettit, Executive Director of the Nez Perce Tribe Rebecca Miles, Earthjustice attorney Todd True and Nez Perce tribal member Elliott Moffett.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
NEPA allowed these individuals to advocate for removing four dams on the lower Snake River to restore wild salmon runs. They are four of the more than 480,000 people who made their voices heard on this issue. Pictured, clockwise from the top left, are former Idaho Fish and Game biologist Steve Pettit, Executive Director of the Nez Perce Tribe Rebecca Miles, Earthjustice attorney Todd True and Nez Perce tribal member Elliott Moffett.