Letter: Council on Environmental Quality Proposed Changes to National Environmental Policy Act

from Dr. David Dow, East Falmouth

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is part of the Executive Office of the President (EOP). Recently  under regulations.gov, they proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act  (NEPA) under Docket ID: CEQ-2019-0003 which has a comment deadline of March 10, 2020. NEPA oversees the Federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process that seeks input on the environmental and socioeconomic consequences of proposed infrastructure that requires federal permits. The EIS process describes the environmental  impact of the project; alternatives to the proposed project; adverse effects that can’t be avoided and tradeoffs between environmental effects and socioeconomic development. Public hearings on these proposed changes will occur in Washington, DC on February 25 and in Denver, Co. on February 11, 2020.

These proposed NEPA changes include:

*   EIS projects should be completed within 2 years and the document should have a maximum of 150 pages

* That a lead Federal agency be delegated for a project requiring multiagency evaluation

* Required the use of prior state/local/tribal environmental studies, analysis and decisions

* NEPA doesn’t mandate specific outcomes or actions, but is instead a procedural process

* Within 30 days of the release  of the final EIS a summary of comments has to be provided (including significant environmental impacts)

* The environmental analysis should focus on “relevant” human stressors and removes addressing “cumulative effects"

* Clarified “categorical exceptions” (CES) and the use of "environmental assessments” (EAS) for human actions that don’t require an EIS process (i.e, an EA  that determines a “finding of no significant impact” doesn’t require an EIS). An EA has a 1 year time constraint.

As a retired marine scientist and grassroots environmental activist living on Cape Cod, I used the North Atlantic right whale (NARW) deaths from entanglements in lobster gear as a case study for some  problems  with the CEQ’s proposed approach.  

On August 21, 2019 there was a public meeting in Bourne organized by NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) on the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team Plan to reduce large whale deaths from lobster line entanglements that drew commercial fishermen/women; ENGOs; scientists; members of the concern public (like me) and state/local officials.  Many of the gear related deaths of NARWs in recent years have occurred in Canadian Jurisdictional waters (Gulf of St. Lawrence), as both the whales and lobster fishing has migrated further offshore into deeper waters or northeastwards into the Gulf of Maine.  Increased ocean noise inshore may have exacerbated this migrations pattern. NOAA  Fisheries scientists and marine mammal ENGOs expressed concern about noise from offshore wind farms, while renewable energy ENGOs wanted to accelerate this process and expressed concern about the delay in the Marthas Vineyard Wind project from the BOEM (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) cumulative EIS process.  NOAA Fisheries addresses NARW conservation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). 

It doesn’t appear to me that either the BOEM EIS or the NOAA GARFO Take Reduction Team Plan  endeavors will meet a 2 year deadline or 150 page document page limit. BOEM is still collecting information, while the NARW Take Reduction Plan  has met strong resistance in Maine.  Even though NOAA concerns about the effects of Ocean Wind Farm  operational noise  appears to have delayed the completion of the MV Wind Farm EIS by BOEM, this NEPA action doesn’t appear to be coordinated with the NOAA Fisheries NARW  conservation process under the ESA and MMPA.  It is not known what combination of human stressors has lead to the increased deaths in NARWs from ship strikes and lobster gears and low birth rates off of the southeastern US Atlantic Ocean coast.  Orsted has funded  a 3 year environmental study by Rutgers University; University of Rhode Island and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to use gliders and passive acoustic buoys  to examine the interaction between New Jersey wind farms and NARW behavior and distribution/abundance between the Mid-Atlantic region and southern New England. The Northeast Fisheries Science Center has its own research and monitoring program for NARWs in support of the Take Reduction Plan and there are state agencies/ academic research programs doing similar work.

This is a real world issue that effects the “Blue Economy” on Cape Cod and local marine biota and their habitats in Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod Bay. It is of interest to diverse constituent groups and elected officials/state and federal managers and regulators (but not the Cape Cod Commission and Northeast Regional Ocean Plan climate change plans).  It requires interactions between state (Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission & Massa. Division of Marine Fisheries) and their Federal Counterparts (Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team; New England Fisheries Management Council; NOAA Fisheries GARFO). I agree with the CEQ that we need better public outreach and coordination between local/state/tribal and federal entities  working with local/state/federal planners on climate change and ocean noise concerns  that effect  the critically endangered NARWs.   These entities have to focus on the shifting ocean baseline and not just the near term effects on lobster gear entanglements and ship strikes on NARW mortalities exceeding birth rates (which has lead to the population decline)  

Dr. David Dow

East Falmouth, Ma.


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