The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was adopted by Congress in 1969 to ensure evaluation of the probable environmental consequences of a proposal before decisions are made by federal agencies. NEPA also allows federal agencies to change, condition, or deny proposals based on environmental considerations. NEPA applies to (1) federal projects, (2) any project requiring a federal permit, and (3) projects receiving federal funding.
Since SEPA was originally modeled after NEPA, the policies as well as the intent of the two laws are very similar:
Each federal agency must adopt its own procedures to meet the requirements and intent of NEPA. The review process of each agency will therefore vary. In general, the NEPA process includes the preparation of an environmental assessment (EA) followed by either a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) or by preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS).
The EA contains information about the proposal that the lead agency uses to decide whether to prepare an EIS or a FONSI. It includes a description of the proposal, a discussion of the proposal’s purpose and need, and identification of probable environmental impacts and possible alternatives. In some cases, the EA is circulated for public review and comment before the lead agency issues either a FONSI or an EIS.
A FONSI is a statement by the federal agency that briefly identifies the reasons why a proposal does not require the preparation of an EIS. Some federal agencies circulate the FONSI for public review and comment.
The NEPA EIS process is much like the EIS process under SEPA: starting with scoping, then issuance of a draft EIS, and finally the preparation of a final EIS. After completion of the EIS, the federal agency usually issues a record of decision that includes the decisions made, the alternatives considered, the factors that were considered in reaching a decision, etc.
Some projects may require approval from both federal agencies and state or local agencies, thus requiring compliance with both NEPA and SEPA. For example, a major dredging operation might need approvals from the U.S. Corps of Engineers, Washington Department of Ecology, and from the county or city. Since both federal and state/local licenses are required, compliance with both NEPA and SEPA would be needed.
Agencies are encouraged to issue combined documents that meet the requirements of both NEPA and SEPA. For example, when an EIS is needed for a proposal, the NEPA and SEPA lead agencies may agree to be co-lead agencies and issue a joint NEPA/SEPA EIS. The EIS will discuss all issues needed to meet the needs of both agencies.
SEPA allows the use of NEPA documents to meet SEPA requirements [WAC 197-11-610]. A NEPA document (EA or EIS) may be adopted or incorporated by reference. For example, an EA for a highway project could be adopted to satisfy the requirements of SEPA if the analysis was complete and accurate. (See section 2.7, Use of Existing Documents, and the adoption forms in Appendix D)
In some instances a federal agency may use existing SEPA documents to meet NEPA requirements, depending on the adopted NEPA policies of that agency.
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