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Little Green Agency That Could

WHEN the Teton River dam burst in 1976, it claimed 17 lives and rewrote the book on environmental-impact statements. Two years before, when the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation was building the dam, some pesky environmentalists found fault with the bureau's impact statement. They argued the agency failed to prove that the bedrock would support a huge earth-filled structure. A court tossed out their lawsuit, calling the concerns "remote and highly speculative."

With the $1 billion failure of the Teton dam, the environmental-impact statement came of age. Yet even today some people think the word "environment" refers only to birds and bears. It doesn't. It's first and foremost about humans. Now Congress is trying to kill the tiny agency that demands that federal bureaucracies consider citizens' environmental concerns and safety.

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The primary tool for this job is the environmental-impact statement, which springs from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed into law by President Nixon in 1970. The standards for it are set by a group created under the same law, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

The council doesn't regulate the private sector. It oversees how other agencies treat the nation's environment and ensures that citizens have input into environmental decisions. This gives the public a say in what happens to closed military bases, for example.

CEQ's entire budget for such protection is $2.2 million, or less than a penny per person each year. That gives us an agency that administers what many call the single most effective environmental statute in America - a law copied by more than 80 countries.

Congress, however, is on the verge of shutting down the council in a sneak attack on NEPA. First, the House voted to terminate CEQ. Next, a Senate appropriations subcommittee decided the agency should limp along on half its current budget. Now even that's at risk, as the House and Senate confer.

Much antipathy toward the environmental-impact process is rooted in lack of understanding. Some believe that after an agency completes an impact statement, it must pursue the alternative that yields the greatest environmental benefit. Not so. An agency can follow any course of action, once the statement is done, however environmentally foolish. As the Supreme Court ruled, "NEPA merely prohibits uninformed - rather than unwise - agency action." Some environmentalists say the law is too weak; none deny it allows flexibility.

Environmental-impact assessments also don't hinder progress. The "look before you leap" approach helps avoid costly, time-consuming environmental disasters. The number of lawsuits filed under NEPA has declined because good environmental planning now is part of all major development.

CEQ provides the president with environmental advice. He gets input from the EPA, but such administrative agencies don't attend every executive-level meeting. When economic, political, science, and trade advisers are present, an environmental voice is crucial. The president would be foolish to take economic advice from just one source. He gets opinions from the Treasury, the Council of Economic Advisors, the Federal Reserve, and many others. CEQ provides another viewpoint on the environment.

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It's not too late for Congress to change course. For a minimum investment, it can ensure the president gets sound environmental advice and that citizens maintain access to environmental decisions that might otherwise leave more people downstream from more Teton dams.

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