1. SEPA - General Background

1.1. Purpose and Intent

1.2. History

The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) may be the most powerful legal tool for protecting the environment of the state. Among other things, the law requires all state and local governments within the state to:

  • "Utilize a systematic, interdisciplinary approach which will insure the integrated use of the natural and social sciences and the environmental design arts in planning and in decision making which may have an impact on man's environment;" and
  • Ensure that "...environmental amenities and values will be given appropriate consideration in decision making along with economic and technical considerations...." [RCW 43.21C.030(2)(a) and (2)(b)]

The policies and goals in SEPA supplement those in existing authorizations of all branches of government of this state, including state agencies, counties, cities, districts, and public corporations. Any governmental action may be conditioned or denied pursuant to SEPA [RCW 43.21C.060].

1.1 Purpose and Intent

SEPA is intended to ensure that environmental values are considered during decision-making by state and local agencies. When SEPA was adopted, the legislature identified four primary purposes:

  1. "To declare a state policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment;
  2. to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere;
  3. and stimulate the health and welfare of man; and
  4. to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the state and nation" [RCW 43.21C.010].

To implement these purposes, the SEPA Rules direct agencies to:

  • Consider environmental information (impacts, alternatives, and mitigation) before committing to a particular course of action; [WAC 197-11-055(2)(c)]
  • Identify and evaluate probable impacts, alternatives and mitigation measures, emphasizing important environmental impacts and alternatives (including cumulative, short-term, long-term, direct and indirect impacts) [WAC 197-11-030(2)(b) and (g)];
  • Encourage public involvement in decisions [WAC 197-11-030(2)(f)];
  • Prepare environmental documents that are concise, clear, and to the point [WAC 197-11-030(2)(c)];
  • Integrate SEPA with existing agency planning and licensing procedures, so that the procedures run concurrently rather than consecutively [WAC 197-11-030(2)(e)]; and
  • Integrate SEPA with agency activities at the earliest possible time to ensure that planning and decisions reflect environmental values, to avoid delays later in the process, and seek to resolve potential problems [WAC 197-11-055(2)].

The environmental review process in SEPA is designed to work with other regulations to provide a comprehensive review of a proposal. Most regulations focus on particular aspects of a proposal, while SEPA requires the identification and evaluation of probable impacts for all elements of the environment. Combining the review processes of SEPA and other laws reduces duplication and delay by combining study needs, combining comment periods and public notices, and allowing agencies, applicants, and the public to consider all aspects of a proposal at the same time.

Proposals can be either project proposals, such as:
  • New construction, 
  • Demolition, 
  • Landfills, or 
  • Exchanges of natural resources;

Or nonproject proposals, such as:

  • Comprehensive plans, 
  • Zoning, or
  • Development regulations.

SEPA also gives agencies the authority to condition or deny a proposal based on the agency's adopted SEPA policies and environmental impacts identified in a SEPA document. See RCW 43.21C.060, WAC 197-11-660, and the Using SEPA in Decision Making section.

1.2. History

First adopted in 1971, the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) provided Washington State's basic environmental charter. Prior to its adoption, the public had voiced concern that government decisions did not reflect environmental considerations. State and local agencies had responded that there was no regulatory framework enabling them to address environmental issues. SEPA, modeled after the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), was created to fill this need. It gives agencies the tools to allow them to both consider and mitigate for environmental impacts of proposals. Provisions were also included to involve the public, tribes, and interested agencies in most review processes prior to a final decision being made.

The Act contains a number of broad policy statements, but little specific direction. In 1974, the Council on Environmental Policy was created by the Legislature and instructed to write rules to interpret and implement SEPA. The Council was directed to write consistent procedures, to reduce duplication and wasteful practices, encourage public involvement, and promote certainty. These regulations were adopted as the SEPA Guidelines, Chapter 197-10 WAC and became effective on January 16, 1976. The SEPA Guidelines included specific procedural requirements and introduced the concepts of categorical exemptions, lead agency responsibilities, and the threshold determination process.

SEPA gives agencies the tools to both consider and mitigate for environmental impacts of proposals.

In 1981 the Legislature created a second committee, the Commission on Environmental Policy, to evaluate and suggest possible amendments to SEPA and the SEPA Guidelines. The Commission's goals were to reduce unnecessary paperwork, duplication, and delay; simplify the guidelines; make the process more predictable; and improve the quality of environmental decision-making.

The Commission's evaluation resulted in several suggested changes to the SEPA process, including:

  • a mitigated determination of nonsignificance process,
  • requirements for shorter, more concise environmental impact statements,
  • a new environmental checklist format, and
  • clarification of SEPA's substantive authority and of the appeals procedures.

The work of the Commission formed the basis for the adoption of the SEPA Rules, Chapter 197-11 WAC, replacing the previous SEPA Guidelines. These rules became effective on April 4, 1984.

The first amendments to the SEPA Rules occurred in 1995 when Ecology added procedures for the integration of SEPA with the Model Toxics Control Act [WAC 197-11-250 thru 268] and provisions for integration of SEPA into the planning process under the Growth Management Act [WAC 197-11-210 thru 235].  The designation of environmentally sensitive areas was also changed to allow the use of critical area ordinances, adopted under GMA, as the basis for eliminating some categorical exemptions [WAC 197-11-908].

In November 1997, the second set of SEPA Rule amendments became effective, implementing the requirements of the 1995 legislation, ESHB 1724. The goal of ESHB 1724 was to establish new approaches to make government regulation more effective, and to make it easier and less costly for citizens and businesses to understand and comply with requirements. With these goals in mind, ESHB 1724 amended a number of laws, including the Growth Management Act [Chapter 36.70A RCW], Shoreline Management Act [RCW 90.58.020], and SEPA. It also created the Local Project Review Act [Chapter 36.70B RCW], the Permit Assistance Center, and the Land Use Study Commission.

The Local Project Review Act has brought additional emphasis to long-standing SEPA policy. The SEPA Rules indicate that environmental documents should be clear, concise, and to the point. Agencies are encouraged to find ways to reduce paperwork and the accumulation of extraneous background data-by emphasizing important environmental impacts and alternatives. To further encourage and promote public involvement in decisions that significantly affect environmental quality, and to avoid delay and duplication, the SEPA process should be initiated early and done in conjunction with other agency procedures [WAC 197-11-030].

For further information, see the sections on the Growth Management Act and the Local Project Review Act.

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