Trump trashes environmental studies but they stave off disaster
© Getty Images

President Trump dramatically dropped thick binders filled with Environmental Impact Statements to the floor of Department of Transportation, calling them “nonsense” and declaring they “could be replaced by just a few simple pages” when announcing his infrastructure plan.

Trump and his advisors probably have no idea that an Environmental Impact Statement saved the country from what might have been one of the worst environmental disasters in our history.

ADVERTISEMENT
Under the National Environmental Planning Act, agencies planning major construction projects must launch a public process to consider the impact of the proposed activities, along with possible alternative approaches. There is no requirement to select the option least harmful to the environment — only to consider the impact of different options.

 

The birthplace of the atomic bomb, the Los Alamos National Laboratory was founded in secret in 1943. By the late 1990s, when Department of Energy conducted a site-wide environmental impact review of proposed construction projects, the laboratory had accumulated more than a half-century’s worth of atomic waste. The final impact statement, in large binders no doubt similar to the ones Trump derided, was issued in December 1999.  

At the time, the lab stored thousands of barrels containing plutonium-contaminated waste materials on wooden pallets. The barrels were surrounded by forest. The environmental planning process requires public input, and at one of the hearings, people from outside the agency raised troubling questions about the potential impact of wildfire on the stored waste, questions the lab had not previously considered.

Once the threat of wildfire was identified, appropriate actions were taken. The wooden pallets were replaced with aluminum ones. Nearby trees were cut down and barrels moved to safer areas.

Soon afterwards, the western part of the country entered an unusually severe wildfire season, and almost 7 million acres burned that summer. One of those, the Cerro Grande Fire, started as a controlled burn at the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. On May 4, 2000, high winds and drought condition drove it out of control. The massive fire swept through Los Alamos, burning 50,000 acres of forest and residential land, including thirty percent of the laboratory’s land.  The conflagration destroyed many of the historic buildings where the atomic bomb was invented and tested, along with more than 200 homes in the town of Los Alamos. The smoke plume reached the Oklahoma panhandle, hundreds of miles away. The fire’s damage was estimated at $1 billion.

Had the fire gotten to the nuclear waste, the consequences would have been far worse. That smoke plume could have easily transported plutonium particles, contaminating a large swath of the Southwest, exposing millions of people to increased risk of cancer.

Instead, the steps triggered by the environmental review were successful. No radiation was released.

Less than one percent of public works projects actually require Environmental Impact Statements. For those very large ones that do, there is little question that the National Environmental Planning Act process can be made more efficient and less-time consuming. But the requirement that government agencies consider the environmental impact of its major projects, and involve the public in those discussions is valuable. Discarding this process would be reckless and costly.

David Michaels is a professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health. Michaels was assistant secretary of Energy for Environment, Safety and Health during the Clinton administration and was assistant secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Obama.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.