Environmental scientists and geology (Part 3): Geology and soil science in the ‘National Environmental Policy Act document’ process in the USA

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Deborah Painter (USA)

I am an ecologist and general environmental scientist, specialising in transportation, energy and industrial development planning to minimise deleterious environmental impacts. I live in the United States and have also written several articles for this magazine. I appreciate just how important local geology and soil science are in one of the aspects of work I do: researching and writing National Environmental Policy Act documents. This is the third of three articles on how environmental scientists apply this knowledge.

Part 1 detailed geology and the hazardous materials site assessment of a property (Fig. 1; see Environmental scientists and geology (Part 1): The first phase of an environmental geology investigation). Part 2 dealt with wetland and water permitting and how geology is important in that process (Fig. 2; see Environmental scientists and geology (Part 2): Geology and soil science in the ‘Wetlands and Waters Permitting’ process in the USA).

Fig. 1. Hazardous material releases can have a tremendous impact and must be documented along with plans for remediation. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)
Fig. 2. If wetlands are to be impacted, permits must be obtained, along with avoidance and minimisation measures put in place. The impacts must not be significant ones. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

Both of these areas of environmental due diligence are parts of every National Environmental Policy Act document, or “NEPA” document. When I write one of these, I must thoroughly document that these two potential issues – and twenty more – have been examined, and that any remediation for hazardous materials and the specifically required permits for work in wetlands and waters, if any, are completed or in progress.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has an interesting and unfortunately obscure history. It was the idea of United States Senator Henry M “Scoop” Jackson. NEPA was signed into law on 1 January 1970 by then-president Richard M Nixon. Its framers felt that a quality environment for all Americans was vital and they knew how many factors often competed with valuable farmland, manageable noise levels and other issues. NEPA laid the groundwork for many other Federal laws that had environmental health in mind.

Using the NEPA process, agencies prepare the document themselves or hire consultants to prepare it. Agencies also provide opportunities for public review and comment and it’s a quite democratic process, really. If the public is enthusiastic about the project, or if the public doesn’t want it, this is revealed in the document’s public involvement phase. I have seen some amazing changes take place in the design of projects when the Federal, state and local governments realise how people really feel about a project as originally proposed.

When is a NEPA document needed?

When Federal funds are being used for a project or there are state funds being used, and the state wants to assure that environmental due diligence is being addressed, a NEPA document is written. The United States is not the only nation with these kinds of laws and regulations. Eighty countries have very similar regulations, many using NEPA as their original template.

Fig. 3. The vertical footprint of a proposed airport taxiway repair went to a depth of 5.18m. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

How does the public, including resource agencies, find out about a proposed Federal or state project?

Resource agencies are formally consulted by letter early in the process to advise them of the project’s “footprint”, that is, the limits of grading and ground disturbance, either temporary or permanent, and both vertical and horizontal (Fig. 3).

The letter also explains the project’s purpose. As I do my research on the impacts, agencies have the opportunity to debate the project and all alternatives to the proposed work that were first examined and then discarded. The focus is on getting a project that does the job it was supposed to do, with minimal environmental impacts. Agencies may recommend further avoidance and minimisation measures. I already know what sort of surveys and studies are likely to be required, so the project can have a successful document. I start on those immediately and I can’t underestimate the cost and time needed for the studies, especially if specialists are contracted for some of them.

There are three levels of documents:

  1. The smallest is the Categorical Exclusion, for types of projects with very small footprints. Memoranda of Agreements between the agencies have decided that these do not necessitate a Public Notice and a Public Hearing after they are reviewed by the resource agencies.
  2. Then there is the Environmental Assessment, for projects that have a larger footprint and several impacts, and do need a Public Notice and a Public Hearing.
  3. The largest is the Environmental Impact Statement, for projects with many significant impacts and a large footprint. These projects need a Public Notice and a Public Hearing.

We’ll focus on Environmental Assessment, since it is much more common than the Environmental Impact Statement and has more interesting complexities than the Categorical Exclusion type of projects.

The desired result at the conclusion of the Environmental Assessment is a ‘Finding of No Significant Impact’ to show that the proposed work does not need the Environmental Impact Statement. But before we get there, we have certain steps we must take. The issues and resources are:

  • aesthetics,
  • air quality,
  • agricultural land,
  • cultural resources (Fig. 4),
  • local geology, topography and soils (Fig. 5),
  • hydrology and water quality,
  • wildlife and habitat,
  • threatened and endangered species,
  • noise,
  • floodplains and wetlands,
  • socioeconomics,
  • environmental justice,
  • Native American and Native Hawaiian tribes,
  • community services (such as emergency response and recreational areas; Fig. 6),
  • solid and hazardous materials,
  • transportation and parking,
  • utilities, and
  • the electromagnetic spectrum.
Fig.4. Cultural resources can be farm buildings, cemeteries and even this old clay smoking pipe factory built in the nineteenth century. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)
Fig. 5. The NEPA document studies local geology, topography and soils, including soil stability. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)
Fig. 6. Will the proposed work help or hinder any emergency response? The NEPA document analyses this issue. (Credits: F Muhammad.)

After a study of each, I can complete the document and gather up all attachments and appendices. The draft document is then ready for its first review by the resource agencies and, after that, a Public Hearing. A Public Notice is published twice, digitally and on paper, over a two-week period in a newspaper of general circulation in the area of the project. The Public Notice advises that the document will be available in one public library for reading for at least 30 days and then the project proponents decide on a location, usually the town hall or a school, where people can show up to discuss the project or, if they prefer, send in comments using email. Their questions will be answered. If there are major objections to the project, these will be examined closely.

After their comments and the agencies’ comments are addressed, the second draft of the Environmental Assessment is written, incorporating any changes. If the project has only a few impacts, it will remain an Environmental Assessment and a Finding of No Significant Impact is signed by the agency having the greatest commitment to the project and who will ultimately approve the project. This is published as a second Public Notice in the same newspaper. Comments are thus solicited for another 30 days. After the second round of review, any comments are incorporated into the final document and it is sent to the agency. The project can then go to construction.

Here is a real-life example. In January 2017 the Capital Region Airport Commission, which manages and owns the Richmond, Virginia International Airport, told my company they wanted to construct 19 separate improvements to this 1,012ha airport that serves both civil and military needs. Just a few were:

  • an expansion of a concourse building that would add new gates,
  • the conversion of a runway to a taxiway,
  • a new fibre optic line,
  • repairs to a runway,
  • repairs to Taxiway “A”,
  • a new compressed natural gas station,
  • a new vehicle car wash at the maintenance building,
  • an east side general aviation expansion in the form of one new building and a paved area for several additional cargo delivery aircraft, and
  • a new radio tower.

During the development of the Environmental Assessment I completed on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration, I filled out a Farmland Conversion Impact Rating Form for the United States Department of Agriculture’s approval, documenting that no farmland was to be impacted, as no land within the airport property had undergone cultivation for many decades.

A small cemetery in a stand of trees within the airport’s perimeter fence had previously been documented in a ten year old report. I consulted with the State Historic Preservation Officer, went over this report which they had in their files, and gained agreement that, as long as construction stayed outside an area they asked us to delineate with flagging, there would be “no effect” to cultural resources.

The town of Sandston’s ball field was just outside the airport’s perimeter fence near where the fibre optic cable was to be laid and near where the East Side general aviation expansion was to be constructed. I researched the ball field and learned the schedule for games (Fig. 7). There would be some overlap of construction timing and the timing of the late afternoon and weekend games, but not enough to cause noise, light or vibration problems.

Fig. 7. Sports activities at this ball field had the potential to be impacted by noise, vibration and light from adjacent airport construction. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

I completed a delineation of a small parcel of forested land covering approximately 1.6ha, which was to be the site for the radio tower. Delineation consists of a comprehensive field survey of soil mapping units, dominant vegetative cover and hydrology. I determined that there were no jurisdictional wetlands or waters within this parcel or near it. US Army Corps of Engineers scientists visited the location and confirmed in writing that there were no wetlands present within it (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. I delineated this forested tract to determine if jurisdictional wetlands existed here. The US Army Corps of Engineers issued a confirmation letter that the tract was upland forest. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

As there were two bald eagle nests previously documented within a kilometre of the project, I completed an analysis under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act , which found that the airport was well outside the buffer zone established by the Act for either nest, and no light, vibration or noise disturbance of these nests would take place (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9. Nests of the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were found to be sufficiently distant as to not be disturbed by proposed construction. (Credits: Sven Lachmann.)

The endangered peregrine falcon had the potential to occur within the airport property: it nests on tall structures. None of the proposed work was near the taller structures at the airport and no documented sightings of the species had to date occurred. The endangered northern long-eared bat had the potential to occur within the airport as it rests in trees. However, it has specific requirements for old growth forest, which was not present near or at any of the proposed construction sites. The endangered swamp pink, a flowering plant of infrequently inundated forested wetlands, was documented from wetlands within 0.80km of the airport, but since no wetlands would be filled or excavated, it was unlikely to be impacted.

A deteriorated hangar near the site of the proposed runway repair had been demolished two years ago and our company had completed a Phase III environmental site assessment at that time. It entailed removal of benzene, trans-1, 2-dichloroethene, 1, 1-dichloroethene and vinyl chloride from the groundwater. Reports from monitoring well data were still being submitted to the state agency that oversees disposal and removal of hazardous waste. I documented that remediation in the form of annual sampling and monitoring of groundwater by our team of geologists and industrial hygienists was ongoing, and no issues had thus far been noted (Fig. 10). Data from the state agency showed five additional hazardous waste incidents outside the airport property and I documented that these were all tanks that were in the process of removal and of no concern.

Fig. 10. Near the proposed runway repairs, groundwater remediation for various hazardous materials was ongoing. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

I then oversaw completion of a quantitative air quality analysis for both the construction of the concourse expansion and the daily added use of these new gates by jetcraft and/or propeller driven craft, as well as all other new proposed construction elsewhere (Fig. 11). The equipment operation and the daily use by aircraft would not result in emissions that exceeded threshold levels of the regulated air pollutants.

Fig. 11. New gates proposed to be added at this concourse would mean more aircraft and more emissions. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

The Environmental Assessment draft was made available for public comment and we received no comments from private individuals. Agency comments were abundant and routine. The Finding of No Significant Impact was written by the Federal Aviation Administration and published in the newspaper. We received no more comments. The NEPA project was completed in December 2017 and the project went to construction on schedule.

The other parts in this series comprise
Environmental scientists and geology (Part 1): The first phase of an environmental geology investigation
Environmental scientists and geology (Part 2): Geology and soil science in the ‘Wetlands and Waters Permitting’ process in the USA
Environmental scientists and geology (Part 3): Geology and soil science in the ‘National Environmental Policy Act document’ process in the USA


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