White House effort to relax NEPA environmental protections met with pushback in Denver

Denver hosted one of two hearings for the Trump administration to gather feedback on its plan rollback the nation's oldest environmental law

Lyla June Johnston, an activist and member of the Diné, or Navajo, nation, came to the White House's Center for Environmental Quality hearing in Denver to speak out against proposed NEPA revisions on Feb. 11, 2020. (Photo by John Herrick)

Lyla June Johnston, an activist and member of the Diné, or Navajo, nation, drove six hours from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Denver to speak out against the Trump administration’s proposed rollbacks to the National Environmental Protection Act, better known as NEPA, the nation’s oldest environmental law. 

She told the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) on Tuesday that its proposed revisions could result in projects like northern California’s Shasta Reservoir expansion, which she said would flood dozens of sacred sites on Winnemem Wintu land north of Redding. That project is tied up in litigation. 

The White House’s proposed changes would relax the environmental review of such dam expansions, exempting some projects altogether and slashing timelines to complete science-based environmental assessments to two years. The revisions would also strip a requirement that federal agencies consider the cumulative impacts of projects, which the courts have interpreted to mean a project’s greenhouse gas emissions and contribution to climate change. 

The changes aim to reduce paperwork and project delays. The CEQ held the hearing in Denver on Tuesday to gather public feedback on the proposed changes. It’s the only hearing outside of Washington, D.C. 

“Asking me to speak here today is like asking me to speak at the proposal of killing my own mother,” Johnston, who is running for the New Mexico House of Representatives, told the panel. “The proposed changes are a slap in the face to our democracy — a slap in the face to the integrity of our mother earth.” 

The law, signed by Richard Nixon in 1970 following a fire on Cuyahoga River, requires federal agencies to consider environmental impacts when reviewing the construction of new roads, oil and gas drilling permits and pipelines, dams, power plants and other projects that have an environmental impact. It touches on projects in Colorado, too, easing the impacts of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s I-70 expansion in the 1970s, drawing out litigation over Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir expansion in Boulder County, and slowing down a developer’s effort to build a road through public land to access a gated luxury estate in the Vail Valley. 

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But for many attending the hearing, the revisions appear to be a foregone conclusion by the Trump administration. President Donald Trump has made eliminating regulations a key priority of his first term in office, having sought to roll back nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations. According to the New York University School of Law, nearly 70 lawsuits have been lodged against the Trump administration in response to his efforts to undo regulations. 

Even so, one by one, environmental advocates, outdoor recreators, citizens of Native American tribes, researchers and Colorado residents stepped up to the podium to urge the council to reconsider the changes. Four members of the Polis administration also signed up to speak against the proposal. Gov. Jared Polis issued a statement Tuesday saying it could “increase the danger of disasters including pipeline leaks and explosions.” The Center For American Progress, a liberal nonprofit research group, on Monday released a survey of 1,000 registered voters nationwide and found 55% disapprove of the NEPA changes. 

Of the dozens of people who spoke during the morning session, just three spoke in support of the proposed changes. Only a handful more supporters spoke throughout the day. In a parking lot outside the hearing room, people bundled in down jackets staged a rally, serving food and circulating petitions as advocates and organizers delivered speech after speech. 

“The speakers today were overwhelming against the proposed rule changes,” Johnston told The Colorado Independent. “Only a cacophony of dissent like that could possibly counter the authoritarian nature of this administration.” 

Tim Wolf, a 63-year-old from Gypsum, drove his truck to the event and parked it near the rally across the street from the EPA’s headquarters. A mustachioed man, wearing a camouflage fleece atop a shirt with an elk ramming a steamroller, said he came to the hearing to highlight the importance of NEPA. He opposes a development project near Vail that would create a road on the northside of I-70 in sensitive elk habitat to access the private Berlaimont Estates. He’s a hunter and said the project could hurt the already dwindling elk populations in the valley. 

“It’s deplorable. It’s disgusting. There is outrage in our community over this,” Wolf told the panel. “Thank God for NEPA.” 

Leslie Robinson, chairwoman of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, a western Colorado group that advocates for stricter oil and gas laws, rallied outside a hearing in Denver to speak out against proposed NEPA revisions on Feb. 11, 2020. (Photo by John Herrick)

But, NEPA’s effect of delaying such projects is drawing ire from developers. CEQ found it takes an average of 4.5 years to complete an environmental assessment under NEPA. One representative from the oil and gas industry told the CEQ that NEPA can delay projects so long they lose economic viability. The changes are supported by the American Petroleum Institute, a fossil-fuel industry trade group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, the Colorado Farm Bureau and some labor unions. 

“It’s well past time for a modernization of the law,” said Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Mining Association. 

Tickets to speak at the hearing were gone in just minutes and over 43,000 public comments have already been submitted on the revisions. Even though the speaking spots were filled weeks before the hearing, there were still empty seats in the room. And about 30 minutes before the morning session ended, there was additional time for people to speak but no one had signed up in advance to do so.

Wildearth Guardians’ Jeremy Nichols, standing in front of banners that read “Protect Our Voices,” said people without tickets should have been able to attend the hearing and speak during the open slots. The requirement that people sign up before speaking, he said, “is another example of how this Trump administration is doing everything it can to deny the public a voice.”

People protested outside a hearing in Denver to speak out against proposed NEPA revisions on Feb. 11, 2020. (Photo by John Herrick)

After three hours of speeches, a group of about three dozen people left the rally, crossed the street despite passing cars and sounding horns, and entered the EPA headquarters. Inside, they chanted “people over profits” before being ushered out by police. Seven of them were let back inside and allowed to speak despite not having signed up. The doors were locked behind them, though some people were let back inside. 

Part of that small group let back inside was Najhozhoni Ben, a 17-year-old member of the Diné nation, who used her student ID to get into the hearing room. She said her family runs a farm selling Navajo white corn along the San Juan River. After the 2015 Gold King Mine spill, which released a yellow wave of toxic mine runoff into the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan, she said people stopped buying her family’s corn. 

“This shouldn’t be happening. We shouldn’t be talking about this,” Ben said on the NEPA changes, choking up at times. “We should be implementing plans for the future. And this is not for the future. This is for profit.”

The Washington, D.C. hearing is scheduled for Feb. 25. Public comments are due March 10.

This story was updated on Feb. 12 to clarify the public’s access to the event. 

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