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DC Environmental and Regulatory Reform
Phil Mendelson
January 1998

The following is excerpted from testimony I gave last month before the City Council. The focus was whether the District's environmental policy act -- modeled on the federal NEPA, adopted almost 10 years ago, but never implemented by the city -- should be repealed.

This testimony was given on behalf of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, an independent citizen organization founded in 1923 and dedicated to advancing the fundamental planning, environmental, and community values that give Washington its historic distinction, natural beauty, and overall livability.




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dropowhi.jpg (1438 bytes)ur environment is under assault. This morning's Washington Post, yet again, has an article about air pollution, mentioning Washington, D.C., as one of the dirtier cities in this country. The Anacostia River is years, or decades, away from recovery as a clean, living, waterway. The urban forest's value is by now well known, but ours continues to deteriorate. This is not the time to be weakening tools for protecting our environment.

The arguments against our current law are that it is expensive, duplicative, and unfriendly to business. These arguments are false and misleading.

Environmental impact statements do not, as a rule, cost $350,000 a pop, as Councilmember Brazil claims. In fact, the majority of EIS's cost less than $50,000 and are only required for projects whose hard costs exceed $1 million (in 1989 value)."

Councilmember Brazil and his allies say the current law is duplicative of up to 70 other laws. We have no idea what they are talking about. The District's Environmental Policy Act is the only law that requires an environmental impact statement. The environmental protection afforded by ordinary permit review and zoning requirements is no substitute for the public disclosure of an EIS. Indeed, the Georgetown Co-generator EIS revealed critical information about public health hazards -- information that had otherwise remained hidden despite dozens of public hearings and separate reviews.

The claim that the District's law is out of step with the nation is false, too. Our current law is not unique; it replicates the very effective National Environmental Policy Act and is similar to laws enacted in other states, including New York, California, and Washington, all of which require environmental review of private development.

The suggestion that environmental disclosure is bad for business is misguided. It assumes, first of all, that there is only one type of business in the District -- to build speculative, new projects. It overlooks existing businesses and small businesses, and the simple fact that environmental quality is important to everyone -- businesses, too. Dirty rivers, gridlocked streets, and smelly trash transfer stations make for a bad business climate.

Thirty years' experience under state and federal NEPA laws has shown that time and again an EIS results in mutually beneficial modifications enhancing both project and community. The only business that may be discouraged by our "little NEPA" law is one whose activities pose serious environmental and public health hazards -- precisely the circumstances where full environmental disclosure is necessary.

Not only would the proposed Title VII of Bill 12-458 be a great leap backward, but it would be absurd. "Environmental effects reports" would be required only of actions involving Council legislation, with no analysis of alternatives. Thus, a detailed environmental impact analysis would be required before the Council could establish a new park, but no such analysis would take place before a private developer builds, say, an industrial waste processing facility.

There is no good substitute for our current law. It must not be repealed. Therefore, we urge that Title VII of Bill 12-458, the "Omnibus Regulatory Reform Amendment Act of 1997," not be adopted. We thank you, Councilmember Thomas, for holding this hearing. 

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