Mission and nature are enhanced at Air Force Materiel Command by viewing every action taken through the lens of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Plans and policy updates, mission changes that bring new programs to a location, construction projects, base closures and more all fall under the watchful eye of NEPA.
Landmark legislation signed in January 1970 requires all federal agencies to conduct an interdisciplinary and systematic review of the effects their actions will have on the natural and human environment. All AFMC installations are subject to this United States environmental law, making all projects, regardless of size, scope or urgency of completion, touched by the NEPA.
“The purpose of the NEPA is not to generate paperwork – even excellent paperwork – but to foster excellent action,” said Jack Bush, Air Force senior planner and Environmental Impact Analysis Plan program manager.
The NEPA requires federal agencies to analyze a full-range of reasonable alternatives that meet the underlining purpose and need of a project. Supporting studies and consultation with the NEPA must be complete and the impact to the environment considered before committing irretrievable resources.
Whether an impact is minimal or significant depends on varying factors. It is important in considering the impact in terms of both context and intensity.
“The spirit of the NEPA is about making wise decisions that give ‘appropriate’ consideration to the environment,” said Shari Fort, AFMC NEPA liaison, Air Force Installation, Detachment 6, and Mission Support Center.
There are three levels of NEPA analysis, with the most significant environmental impacts documented within an environmental impact statement or EIS, ending in a record of decision. Another level is the environmental assessment, or EA, where the impacts are weighted to determine impact significance. The last level is the categorical exclusion, or CATEX, documented on Air Force Form 813. All federal actions will end in one of these three NEPA reviews.
The EIS is the highest and most detailed analysis category and is reserved for actions expected to be the most harmful. These make up less than 5 percent of project reviews annually across AFMC. However, because of the impacts, additional processing time and several comment periods are required for an EIS, which result in an estimated 16 to 24 months of processing.
An EA occurs when the impacts of an action are unknown, and the proposed activity does not qualify for a categorical exclusion. The EA takes an estimated 6–12 months to complete. Analysis and documentation of findings are integral to this category, along with a required 30–day public comment period.
The EA makes up twice the number of NEPA projects completed each year, compared to the EIS.
Low, or no impact projects that continually occur on federal facilities, may qualify for a CATEX.
The Air Force has determined there are 38 types of actions that do not individually or cumulatively have potential for significant environmental impact and require no further environmental review.
“CATEXs are the work horses of the AFMC NEPA and, when done right, are the best solution of the vast majority of our actions,” said Fort.
While a detailed NEPA review is not required for CATEX actions, it does not exempt the Air Force from NEPA compliance nor compliance with all other environmental laws.
One example is the movement of military aircraft from one installation to another during inclement weather to avoid damage to aircraft.
In October 2018, Hurricane Michael displaced the Air Force’s only F-22 Fighter Test Unit from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.
Preliminary environmental impacts determined an EIS was required; however, the President’s Council of Environmental Quality granted approval to conduct an emergency NEPA analysis, because program delays could do irreparable harm to national security.
The emergency did not exempt the Air Force from complying with NEPA but allowed emergency response while completing the environmental review.
The negative effects of a project are not always eliminated, nor is the less damaging alternative always required to be the project choice.
As part of decision making, agencies must follow procedural law by giving appropriate consideration to the environment. They must clearly present the rational for their decision and make diligent efforts to solicit public comments.
In all, the NEPA does not regulate the type of decisions made in relation to a project. However,it helps Air Force leadership to understand what impacts an action will have on the environment and mission accomplishment.
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