May 01, 2013

EPA streamlines Environmental Impact Statement filing process with e-NEPA

Justin Wright

Editor’s Note: This is one of the continuing series of articles on agency adoption of e-filing procedures for those who practice in the environmental, energy, and natural resources fields. For a detailed description of EPA’s adoption of an electronic filing system for FOIA requests (e-FOIA), please see the article by Stephen Gidiere and Tal Simpson in our March/April 2013 issue.

In August 2012 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued revised guidelines on filing Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). EPA’s revised guidelines announced that as October 1, 2012, the agency would only accept EIS filings through its new e-NEPA, an online system for submitting EISs in .PDF format. This article describes the background of the required filing and EPA’s new all-electronic filing system.

NEPA requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of federal actions during their decision making process. For federal actions which may result in significant environmental impacts, agencies are required to prepare an EIS that analyzes the potential environmental impacts of the proposed action and reasonable alternatives to the action. Draft and final versions of the EIS documents are released for public comment prior to the lead federal agency making a final decision on whether to proceed with the action or an alternative. Pursuant to a 1977 Memorandum of Understanding between the Council on Environmental Quality and EPA, the agency has been designated the official recipient of all EISs. These responsibilities have been codified in the Council of Environmental Quality NEPA Implementing Regulations (40 C.F.R. Parts 1500–1508), and are separate from the substantive EPA review performed pursuant to both NEPA and section 309 of the Clean Air Act.

Prior to October 2012, EPA had required federal agencies to submit one paper and two disc copies of the EIS documents. Now, one must register for an e-NEPA account, sign in, and then select “e-NEPA: NEPA Electronic Filing System—Submit an EIS” to fill out some basic information on the document and begin uploading an EIS along with any appendices.

Transitioning to electronic filing provides a number of advantages over traditional hard copy filing. EPA believes e-NEPA represents an opportunity for federal agencies to save time and money. Since EISs can span volumes and contain thousands of pages of data, maps, and analyses, submitting agencies will be able to realize savings by eliminating the printing, shipping, and delivery costs associated with filing. In addition, because EPA will now receive all EISs in digital form, e-NEPA creates an opportunity for the agency to make the documents available to a wider public audience. EPA will now permanently host all EISs filed after October 1, 2012, on its database webpage, making them available to the public in a centralized public resource. Indeed, in addition to hosting previously-filed EISs, the database provides a convenient listing of “EIS filings during the last week” that provides easy access to EIS filings by state, agency filing, and with a brief title of the project. This is far better than sending someone to read through the weekly Federal Register indices.

EPA has been accepting electronic versions of EISs through an e-NEPA pilot phase since February of this year. While the overwhelming majority of the feedback from federal agencies participating in the pilot has been positive, there have been some challenges in implementing the system. Frequent questions and concerns were raised about standardized file formatting, metadata, file naming, and file sizes. In response, the EPA’s staff has worked to adapt to the needs of submitting agencies and worked with submitting agencies to create standards and instructional materials. It is important to remember that at this time government employees can register through the e-NEPA system as submitters, but contractors cannot. While there is no limit to the number of files that can be submitted at one time, each PDF file cannot exceed 50 MB. Prior to filing, submitters are required to ensure all PDFs of EIS documents are electronically searchable, including subjecting the document to optical character recognition scans if necessary. The e-NEPA guide, linked below, provides guidance on how to modify and compress PDFs. The guide also describes how to control metadata in your PDFs and how to create bookmarks for easier reading.

For more information about e-NEPA, visit the submittal page. For more information about NEPA generally, visit the agency’s NEPA page. For answers to questions about how to file an EIS electronically, download the e-NEPA guide.

Justin Wright

Justin Wright is an environmental protection specialist in EPA’s NEPA Compliance Division.