Home > Uncategorized > The Impact Assessment Acts (May 12)

The Impact Assessment Acts (May 12)

Both NEPA and Act 250 require that assessment of impact be conducted prior to the implementation of a project OR a policy (in the case of NEPA). As you discovered, these assessment need to cover a wide variety of environmental aspects such a water quality, wildlife habitat, traffic, economic development, etc. While some of these topics are specified in the legislation, impact assessment is often not just limited to specified topics but can include many aspects of the concept of impact. If you look at actual Environmental Impact Assessments, the bulk of the assessments are about individual topics (such as impact on wetlands). Thus, these assessments are multidisciplinary in their approach. Much more difficult to achieve is an interdisciplinary and holistic assessment of the impacts of the project or policy. In addition, the really long-term impacts are also very difficult to assess.

The art and science of impact assessment is challenging, and not often agreed upon by all parties involved. Dispute then often moves the process to a adversarial one with mediation or court actions required. One outcome of all of this is that the project gets public scrutiny of some kind, possibly with press coverage. This takes the project into a political realm. So one major role of NEPA and Act 250 is just to make the project more visible.

In your comments, please comment on how available and helpful you find the information that you found (tell us what you found). Then, from the reading that you have done, reflect on how important you feel the Acts are and what you think they accomplish. If you didn’t look at an Environmental Impact Statement, the NEPA link goes to a selection of these often very long documents. You should just skim one or two to get a sense of what the document is like.

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  1. Dan Hale
    August 4, 2010 at 6:24 pm | #1

    Act 250

    I started my search in the UVM Library’s Academic Search Premier database and found an article titled “Evaluating the effectiveness of Act 250 in Protecting Vermont’s Streams.” This started with an overview of Act 250 and its background, examined exceptions to the act and related shortcomings, and then related Act 250 more specifically to streams and riparian buffers.

    I’ve learned about Act 250 in previous classes, but I was surprised to learn that the state government’s large role in the permitting process can allow local governments to go without effective environmental review processes. The towns don’t feel they need their own review when the state’s Act 250 is taking care of everything. Also, Act 250 does not require most development in an area less than 1 acre to obtain a permit. This can allow many small individual projects to pass unnoticed. I’m realizing that while Act 250 is groundbreaking, innovative, necessary, and exemplary, it is used mostly as a requirement for developers to think and comply, rather than a strict hold on all development.

    As it pertains specifically to streams, Act 250 requires that the development or subdivision “whenever feasible, maintain the natural condition of the stream (Issuance of Permit; Conditions and Criteria 1 (E)).” Act 250 addresses development on a case by case basis, leaving parameters for stream health somewhat ambiguous. Subcriterion 1(E) is not specific enough to provide a solid framework that can consistently address all cases.

    Reading about Act 250 has reminded me that it was set up in response to a drastic increase in development following the construction of the interstate highways. It’s meaningful as a check on what could otherwise be unlimited growth. It promotes environmental protection and community participation. While this tool may not be used often to halt development plans forthright, developers must incorporate Act 250 into their planning process. Community members who would be directly affected are given a say in the permitting in a public hearing.

    Reading from the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, I learned that Act 250 has been crucial in keeping Wal-Mart out of Saint Albans. Using grounds that Wal-Mart will negatively affect downtown retail stores, replace good farmland and increase traffic, the town government has been able to ward off repeated permit requests.


    All of the information I found about NEPA was very straightforward, with no comment on the extent of its effectiveness. As it appears to me, NEPA is useful in bringing the environment into the discussion of government projects and in its creation of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). In reading the first few sections of the act, I see a lot of lofty words about how the government will “use all practicable means and measures … to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony.” This sounds great, but terribly unrealistic up to now.

    One of the links I found in researching the National Environmental Policy Act described its functions as a requirement for all Federal agencies to assess environmental impacts, consider these in decision making, and disclose the findings to the public. In my understanding, NEPA requires Federal agencies to be better informed before they make decisions. I do not see any stipulation requiring these agencies to change their actions in response to the environmental impacts found,. NEPA is important in that it brings the environment into consideration. Other acts, such as the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, Endangered Species Act, and the Environmental Justice Executive Order impose limitations in action.

    NEPA is carried out by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which was created as part of the act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which review Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) and Environmental Assessments (EA), and the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, which helps opposing parties to reach a common ground.

    When surveying government projects for environmental impacts, one looks first to see if the project applies to NEPA. Some actions, such as projects previously found to have no impact, EPA projects, or actions under the jurisdiction of other environmental laws, do not apply to NEPA. Next, the lead agency (almost always the EPA) will conduct an environmental assessment (EA) which determines whether the environmental impacts are significant. When insignificant, a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) is filed. When significant, the EPA must write up an Environmental Impact Statement. (EIS).

    I found a government study evaluating NEPA after 25 years. It quotes,

    “this NEPA Effectiveness Study finds that agencies may sometimes confuse the purpose of NEPA. Some act as if the detailed statement called for in the statute is an end in itself, rather than a tool to enhance and improve decision-making. As a consequence, the exercise can be one of producing a document to no specific end. But NEPA is supposed to be about good decision-making – not endless documentation. (…) The Study finds that agencies sometimes engage in consultation only after a decision has – for all practical purposes – been made. ”

    I’m aware that I’ve mentioned mostly NEPA’s cons. Really any environmental legislation is a step in the right direction, and NEPA was groundbreaking. With impact statements being produced in all government actions, it is easy to detect and avoid violations to our other environmental laws. NEPA certainly acknowledges and takes steps toward correcting the government’s imbalance with nature.

  2. Deane
    May 20, 2010 at 12:25 pm | #2

    NEPA applies to more than just federal agencies… in fact entity that accepts Federal dollars must comply with NEPA. That’s a lot of people. Act 250 applies to any large project in Vermont. The renovation of the Aiken Center, which is mostly work on the interior of the building, needs an Act 250 permit.

    The number of projects actually stopped by NEPA and Act 250 is very small. The main effect is to force projects to “think” about their environmental impact and design a better project. I’m sure Vermont would look different without this forced consideration of the environment.

  3. Jessica Fefer
    May 20, 2010 at 12:22 am | #3

    NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act)

    Although I have previously learned about NEPA, this is the first time I have studied the act with much detail. As I already knew, NEPA requires all federal agencies to consider their actions, and the impacts these actions have on the environment. It also makes the federal agencies consider some alternatives to their actions, alternatives that might mitigate some of their environmental damage. The federal agencies are forced to think about their impacts through making an environmental impact statement (EIS). An EIS is a detailed evaluation of the actions and alternatives of the federal agency. It includes such things as the reasons and purpose of the actions, alternatives, environmental consequences of the action, and a list of who is involved in the action, such as other agencies or organizations that may have helped prepare the statement. This is a very in depth statement, and you might be wondering (as I was), what if the action has very little environmental impacts? Does the federal agency still have to take all of these steps? These are answers that I found in doing this more in depth research. I found out that there are actually 3 steps in the evaluation of the federal action. The first is referred to as Categorical Exclusion Determination. This happens when the EPA decides that the agency does not have to make an EIS because their action wont hurt the environment under NEPA regulation. If it is decided that there will be negative environmental impacts, the agency must write an environmental assessment (EA), to determine just how significant the impact will be. If it is then decided that action would not significantly affect the environment, the agency issues a finding of no significant impacts (FONSI), which would discuss mitigation techniques for any potential impacts, significant or not. But, if after filing the EA, it is still decided that the impacts will be significant, the agency must file an EIS. Which, as was previously stated, is a more detailed analysis of the actions, impacts, alternatives and mitigation techniques of the federal agency. An EIS also includes outside parties and public participation, allowing many people to be involved in the actions that the federal agencies take.

    I also came across a lot of information about oversight of NEPA, which I hadn’t previously learned about. This cleared up some confusion I had about what exactly the EPA and CEQ did, but now I know that they play an important role in NEPA and EIS’s, and in keeping federal agencies environmentally regulated.

    Finding this information on the internet wasn’t difficult, but I definitely had to pick and choose which websites I thought were the clearest and provided the most reputable information. After going through a few websites, I settled on epa.gov, because they organized the information in a clear and concise way, and there were different links making it easy for me to get more in depth information. I also knew that I was getting correct information because it was coming from a government website.

    Although now a days it seems obvious that all agencies should consider their environmental impacts before taking action, this was definitely not the case just 40 years ago. This act changed the way our society operates, and dramatically changed the way we touch the environment. Although we still have a lot of learning and growing, this act was a huge step in making agencies think about their actions, and making people realize that the environment is an important aspect of our society, not just something we can dominate and use at our own free will. With out NEPA, federal agencies would still be dumping waste into our watersheds, emitting more harmful pollutants than we do now, and slowly degrading our environment and life style as we know it.

    Act 250

    Finding information about Act 250 took a little bit longer than NEPA, probably because it is statewide rather than national. But once I found a good website for reliable information, provided by the Vermont Heritage Network, it all became very clear. Although I knew that Act 250 was a land-use planning bill, I knew very few details. Through doing this research I learned that goal was basically to ensure orderly growth and development through out the state, mitigating environmental impacts, and allowing municipalities and individuals to state specific concerns about development plans. I also learned that the reason the act became necessary was the new highways such as I-89 that made Vermont an easy and accessible place to go. Development and sprawl began to increase at an enormous rate, and individual townships didn’t have the resources to control the land-use at the time. Vermont legislation decided to pass a land-use permitting bill to help municipalities control the rapid growth and development that was happening through out Southern Vermont. Act 250 is not meant to get in the way, or slow down the development process, it is simply regulating who can build what, and where. It doesn’t require that all development plans be permitted, only those of a large scope or in a certain area. For instance, if somebody wants to sub-divide a parcel of land into 10 or more plots, or if they hope to develop above 2,500 feet, they must issue for a permit. There are other requirements for getting a permit, but I won’t list them all here. In order to obtain a permit, there are 10 criteria that the developers must satisfy. Again, I will not list them all here, but in a nutshell, they require that there is no undue air or water pollution, no added soil erosion, no traffic congestion, no burden on educational or municipal services, no effects of aesthetics, historic sites, or rare habitat, and it must conform to local or regional development plans. It is clear, when going over the 10 criteria, that they are not only concerned with environmental impacts, but also social and aesthetic impacts that the development may effect. It is important that they took everything into account with land-use planning legislation, because it involves many levels of concern, from environmental to social.

    When going over the exact text of Act 250 (which I had some trouble finding on my own), I noticed that they made the definition of development and sub-division very clear. The clarity of a piece of legislation like this is so important when it comes to actual implementation of the bill. Act 250 is obviously a very important piece of Vermont legislation. Reading over the bill makes me wonder what the beautiful state would be like had we not come up with a viable land-use permitting plan.

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