An Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is a detailed document required for any action that is funded, approved or undertaken by the federal government — such as a large-scale construction project — and is deemed to “significantly affect” the surrounding environment.
Specified under the 1970 National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), an EIS details the likely environmental impacts of a given proposal so as to avoid or minimize any adverse affects. Since an EIS is a decision-making tool intended to help decision-makers weigh the need for an action against its environmental cost, it usually specifies one or more alternatives to the proposed action. It also requires the analysis of a “No Action Alternative” that outlines the expected environmental impacts if the existing conditions were left as is with no action taken.
Not all federal actions are subject to a full EIS. If a project is deemed by the agency enacting it not to have a significant environmental impact on its surroundings, the agency can first prepare a shorter document called an Environmental Assessment (EA), which determines if a full EIS is required. If the EA is found to support the agency’s position that the action would be of negligible environmental impact, the agency can issue a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) that allows the action to proceed.
Certain projects may also be exempted from the EIS process through a Categorical Exemption (CATEX), which is often issued in the case of an emergency where the need for expedited action outweighs an environmental analysis — repairing a bridge collapse, for example.
Several states have their own version of an EIS, which are intended to supplement the environmental protection provided by NEPA. For example, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to be submitted for certain actions. Unlike an EIS — which only applies to actions tied to federal action or funding – an EIR can be required for any project undertaken by a state, local, or private entity that requires discretionary approval from a governmental agency and may cause either a direct physical change in the environment or a reasonably forseeable indirect change to the environment. In cases where a project is subject to both NEPA and CEQA rules, a joint EIS and EIR is prepared.
The EIS Process
In cases where an EIS is required, the process begins with a series of scoping meetings intended to determine the leaders in the process and the relevant laws, information and research relevant to the project. Once scoping is completed, the agency is required to notify the public that it is preparing an EIS, provide information about how they can become involved with the process, and accept comments related to the action.
Based on research from the agency and input from the public, a draft EIS is prepared with a full description of the project’s environmental impact, a list of possible alternatives, and an analysis of each. Affected individuals are again invited to comment about the draft EIS. Those comments — and the agency’s response to each – are then included in the final EIS, which also specifies a proposed action.
If the EIS is protested by members of the public who feel the agency missed a major issue, the director of the acting agency may either ask the EIS to be revised or more fully explain and support the agency’s findings. In some cases, a Re-evaluation Report and Supplemental EIS may be issued – for example, when environmental circumstances have changed or a significant amount of time has lapsed since the final EIS was completed.
Once all issues are resolved, the agency issues a Record of Decision (ROD) which stands as its final action prior to implementing its plan.