FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 22, 2005

CONTACTS:
Phyllis Dunham, (512) 472-9094, x. 12 or (512) 297-7565
Oliver Bernstein, (512) 472-9094, x.11
Donna Hoffman (512) 477-1729 or (512) 299-5776, cell

 Lone Star Chapter

Pombo’s NEPA Task Force

Public Hearings about a Public Process…without the Pesky “Public” Part

CA Congressman Pombo has convened a NEPA Task Force to investigate the National Environmental Policy Act, a 35-year old law that guarantees public participation and adequate review of major projects. The Task Force has been holding field congressional hearings to hear about the role NEPA is playing. Unfortunately, the actual public itself is not encouraged to participate.

These hearings have elbowed out the public and citizen groups. The hearings are announced on the Resources Committee Web site at the last minute. There are no announcements made in newspapers to invite the public and no alerts sent to local and state government officials. Witness panels are not revealed until just a couple of days before the hearing and they are heavily dominated by representatives from logging, drilling, mining, and other companies. Environmental experts are either invited with little or no lead time or not at all. At the hearings, only the invited witnesses can testify. The public can watch, but they are not allowed to speak or ask questions.

Some citizen groups have been encouraging the public to send written comments and testimony for inclusion in the written record. There is no clear process outlined on the task force Web site to submit formal written testimony. There is a “Tell Us Your Story” link on the Web site. It is unclear if those emails will be incorporated into the final report that will be issued in October.

It seems that the general public, environmental community and local officials are not welcome to be involved in the NEPA hearing process. The following summary of the process so far shows that Rep. Pombo is not interested in the public’s input, and is more concerned about what invited industry representatives have to say about changing the National Environmental Policy Act. Several myths about how NEPA works are being perpetuated and NEPA is also being used as the scapegoat in examples of controversial projects that have not moved forward quickly.

HEARING #1 – Shhh…Just Keep It Quiet

The first hearing was scheduled for 10:00am Saturday, April 22 in Spokane, WA. It was titled “Field Hearing on the Role of NEPA in the States of WA, OR, ID, MT, AK.” Information about the venue and witnesses was not released until one and half weeks before the hearing itself. The panel included 12 invited witnesses, many of whom were industry representatives. Only two environmental experts were included. Almost all were from the state of Washington. Most of the witnesses seemed to be concerned about implementation of the NEPA process, and the Washington Dept. of Transportation Secretary even said that implementation should be addressed, but legislative changes and any limits on public participation will not help.

Upon learning about the hearing, local community groups circulated announcements and even took out an ad in the newspaper letting the public know that it was happening. Over 150 community members attended the hearing to hear testimony about the public participation and environmental review process.

HEARING #2 – Playing the Shell Game

Fresno , CA was the indicated location for the second hearing, but it was not officially announced. It was then changed to Bakersfield, CA, but still not officially announced. Next, it was moved to Show Low, AZ. And then about one week out, it was officially announced for Lakeside, AZ for 10:00am Saturday, June 18. This was the same day and time that the community had planned a celebration of the Fossil Creek Dam de-commissioning – a regional NEPA success story that involved stakeholders from all facets of the community.

Just a few days before the hearing, invitations were faxed to the offices of the Sierra Club office and the Center for Biological Diversity to come testify. In order to participate, the task force required that the groups identify an available representative to testify and submit the oral and written testimony by the next day. Both organizations had to decline given the impossible 1-day deadline and obligations to the pre-existing Fossil Creek community event. The title of the hearing was “The Role of NEPA in the Southwestern States,” which include CA, NV, and AZ, according to the task force Web site. Half of the 8 person witness panel included representatives from industries such as mining, logging, cattle ranching, and construction. Three were from AZ, two from NV, two from NM (which is not included in the region as they define it on their Web site), and one from UT. There were no environmental experts included on the panel.

HEARING #3 – Thou Shalt not be Represented

The third hearing is scheduled to take place at 10:00am on Saturday, July 23 in Nacogdoches, TX. This was revealed 10 days before the hearing date. This hearing is titled “The Role of NEPA in the Southern States,” which include TX, LA, MS and AL according to the task force Web site. Of the 9 invited witnesses, half will be logging and mining industry representatives, two will be environmental experts (at least one of whom made a formal request to be included), 8 are from TX and 1 is from AL. Upon learning about the hearing, the Sierra Club Texas Chapter requested to testify but was not invited.

HEARING #4 – It’s not about the Public Stupid!

The fourth hearing is tentatively slated for Rio Rancho, NM. It was changed from Albuquerque to Rio Rancho a few days ago. The time was also changed from Saturday, July 30 to 10:00am Monday, August 1. NM Congressman Tom Udall, who plans to attend this hearing, asked for a Sunday or even Monday evening time citing that Monday morning is an inconvenient and unworkable time for most of the public who will be at work. No official announcement on this hearing has been made yet (as of 7/22/2005) which means the time and date might be changed yet again, per the historical behavior of the task force so far.

To visit the NEPA Task Force Web site (which includes witness lists and region definitions), go to the following link and click on “NEPA Task Force”: http://resourcescommittee.house.gov.

For additional information on NEPA, visit: www.sierraclub.org/lookbeforeyouleap

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“Public” NEPA Hearings Silence Citizens:

Rep. Pombo’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Task Force Leaves the Public out of Government

AL, MS, TX, LA Concerned southerners gathered together on a regional teleconference today to speak out about the importance of public input in National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public hearings. They also pointed out that the southern states hearing to be held in Nacogdoches, Texas this weekend is designed to prevent the public from speaking out to protect the National Environmental Policy Act, landmark community protection legislation enacted under the Nixon administration. Community leaders from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama sent the message that maintaining and strengthening the community’s voice in decisions on major federal projects is critical to making wise choices that enhance the quality of life in our communities.

“The National Environmental Policy Act protects and empowers the public. It makes sure the local community is not left out of decisions, and it provides us the opportunity to base these decisions on good information,” said Karla Raettig, Deputy Director of the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic.

Evelyn Merz, longtime Houston environmental activist, pointed out that NEPA not only guarantees the public a seat at the decision-making table, it provides options. “NEPA gives communities and the federal government choices in how to move forward and ensure that the locals will be involved in the decisions. NEPA allowed us to protect important green areas for people and wildlife along Sims Bayou in Houston instead of lining another ditch with concrete. Because of the NEPA process we were able to reduce flooding and protect green space. Without NEPA, our local resources and community assets would get no consideration.”

The community gathered today in anticipation of the upcoming congressional hearing on the effectiveness of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It is the third of six public hearings being held by the Congressional NEPA Task Force, which was formed by California Congressman Richard Pombo, who chairs the House Resources Committee. The public is allowed to observe while invited witnesses testify about NEPA. However, little effort is made to include the public. For the southern hearing, it is not clear if the public and local officials outside of TX or outside of the small town of Nacogdoches have even been informed that it is taking place, even though it is supposed to cover TX, LA, AL, and MS.

“These so called public hearings are a well kept secret. They are announced at the last minute, witness panels are not revealed until a couple of days beforehand and are usually dominated by industry representatives, and there is no effort to reach out to the public to get them involved. Why would Rep. Pombo send a task force into the field to learn about the role of public participation in major projects, and at the same time try so hard to keep it as quiet and inaccessible as possible for the public itself?” asked Sierra Club spokesperson Phyllis Dunham.

The 35-year old National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law in 1970 by President Nixon. It requires federal agencies to study and disclose the community and environmental effects of major projects and include the public in the decision-making process for federally funded projects. However, there are some who want to curtail NEPA’s environmental review process and public participation in the name of speeding up projects.

Casi Calloway of Mobile Baywatch in Mobile, Alabama highlighted the dangers of reducing the protections NEPA provides to communities. “When it comes to protecting the local environment and the safety and health of local citizens, quality of work matters more than speed. Cutting corners to get a job done faster and cheaper for a corporation can have disastrous consequences for the local community. NEPA makes sure we look before we leap, and any attempts to weaken it will take away our safety net,” Calloway said.

The NEPA Task Force will hold its hearing on Saturday, July 23 at 10:00am in Nacogdoches, Texas. The only two of Saturday’s eleven witnesses representing local and environmental interests will be: Larry Shelton of the Texas Committee on Natural Resources and Sandra Nichols of Wildlaw from Montgomery, Alabama. Ms. Nichols is the only witness from outside Texas.

For more information about NEPA and future hearings, please visit: www.sierraclub.org/lookbeforeyouleap .

Please email oliver.bernstein@sierraclub.org to request fact sheets on NEPA, Pombo’s NEPA Task Force, and local NEPA success stories.

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