An environmental impact statement
, in the United States
, is a document that must be filed when the federal government
takes a "major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment." The law requiring this is the National Environmental Policy Act
An EIS typically has four sections:
- * An Introduction including a statement of the Purpose and Need of the Proposed Action.
- * A description of the Affected Environment.
- * A Range of Alternatives to the proposed action. Alternatives are considered the "heart" of the EIS.
- * An analysis of the environmental impacts of each of the possible alternatives.
The purpose of NEPA is to promote informed decision-making by federal agencies by making "detailed information concerning significant environmental impacts" available to both agency leaders and the public.
Not all federal actions require a full EIS. If the action may or may not cause a significant impact the agency can prepare a smaller, shorter document called an Environmental Assessment (EA) first. The finding of the EA determines whether an EIS is required. If the EA indicates that no significant impact is likely, then the agency can release a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) and carry on with the proposed action. Otherwise, the agency must then conduct a full-scale EIS. Most EAs result in a FONSI.
Contrary to a widespread misconception, NEPA does not prohibit the federal government or its licensees/permittees from harming the environment, but merely requires that the prospective impacts be understood and disclosed in advance.
The NEPA process
The NEPA process is designed to involve the public and gather the best available information in a single place so that decision makers can be fully informed when they make their choices.
The process has the following steps:
- Scoping: When a project is first proposed, the agency announces it with a notice in the Federal Register, notices in local media, and letters to citizens and groups that it knows are likely to be interested. Citizens and groups are welcome to send in comments helping the agency identify the issues it must address in the EIS (or EA).
- Draft EIS: Based on both agency expertise, and issues raised by the public the agency prepares a Draft EIS with a full description of the affected environment, a reasonable range of alternatives, and an analysis of the impacts of each alternative. The public is then provided a second opportunity to provide comments.
- Final EIS and Proposed Action: Based on the comments on the Draft EIS, the agency writes a Final EIS, and announces its Proposed Action. The public is not invited to comment on this, but if they are still unhappy, or feel that the agency has missed a major issue, they may protest the EIS to the Director of the agency. The Director may either ask the agency to revise the EIS, or explain to the protester why their complaints are not actually taken care of.
- Record of Decision: Once all the protests are resolved the agency issues a Record of Decision which is its final action prior to implementation. If members of the public are still dissatisfied with the outcome they may sue the agency in Federal court.
State and international
The same general pattern has since been followed by several US state
governments that have adopted "little NEPA's," i.e., state laws imposing EIS requirements for particular state actions. Many other countries have also enacted laws requiring environmental impact assessment
. For example, the European Community
has established a mix of mandatory and discretionary procedures for assessing environmental impacts. Internationally, an EIS is a summary of the EIA that can be easily read by and commented on by the public to get opinion on a particular project that is going ahead. The public's opinion may sway the local government approving the site one way or another, and it is therefore imperative that the EIS is clear and unambiguously explained.
A Negative declaration, or Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) declaration is "a document indicating that upon completion of an initial study, that there is no substantial evidence that the project may have a significant effect on the environment."
It is more generally "a finding by a city council or other local government that a proposed development or project would have no effect on the environment and therefore the developer need not prepare and file an 'environmental impact report.'