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You may have missed the original intent of President Donald Trump’s news conference in New York last week — the one in which he made his unconscionable defense of the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville, Va. At that event, Trump also announced a new executive order that will roll back environmental reviews and a standard to reduce flood risks to infrastructure.
The president claimed that this move “streamlines” the process for federal agencies to review the environmental risks of major infrastructure projects, including highways, bridges and pipelines. In reality, Trump’s executive order weakens the National Environmental Policy Act and cancels a federal standard that protects new infrastructure from flooding and costly repairs. The order is a gift to developers and big corporations — the “private” half of the public-private partnerships that will implement the president’s infrastructure plan. Communities will suffer the consequences and taxpayers will pick up the tab.
Trump’s executive order will undermine important public health and environmental protections and channel taxpayer dollars into risky infrastructure investments in flood-prone areas. And it will place communities struggling to make ends meet and communities of color — which are already exposed to disproportionately high flood risks and pollution from power plants, pipelines and highways — at even greater risk.
Here is what’s at stake. NEPA — one of the United States’ foundational environmental protection laws — was enacted by Congress in 1969, after years of growing public concern about environmental quality. The law helps ensure that infrastructure and development projects proceed without sacrificing public health and environmental protection. NEPA provides a framework for informed governmental decision-making, mandating careful review of the impacts of major infrastructure projects. It empowers local communities through greater transparency, and requires the federal government to conduct public outreach so that residents can voice their concerns about projects in their community.
It is a rigorous process, to be sure, but one that is necessary to make sure that taxpayers’ money is not spent on harmful boondoggles. Before NEPA, poor planning and a lack of substantive environmental review caused tremendous waste of money and harm to public health and the environment. To understand the need for this process, one only need to look at the channelization of the Kissimmee River in Florida, which was completed prior to enactment of NEPA. By draining wetlands and shunting the river into a manmade canal, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers destroyed a healthy ecosystem, replacing it with a series of relatively stagnant pools. The ecological damage caused by the channelization was so profound that Congress authorized a billion-dollar restoration of the Kissimmee River in 1992.
In addition to weakening NEPA, Trump’s executive order also repeals the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which was created by the previous administration to avoid wasting taxpayer dollars on risky and poorly sited infrastructure projects. Recommended by a bipartisan task force of state, local, and tribal leaders, the standard aimed to ensure that hospitals, community centers and other public infrastructure in flood-prone areas are built to withstand growing flood risks.
Allowing poorly designed development projects in flood-prone areas is not only shortsighted and fiscally irresponsible, it is dangerous. Volumes of scientific evidence demonstrate that the world is getting hotter and, as a result, communities will face stronger and more frequent storms, heavier downpours and sea level rise — all of which elevate flood risks. Communities are already confronting the effects of rising flood risks: Just this week, in New Orleans, heavy rain flooded hundreds of homes and businesses. Growing coastal and inland floods affect every region of the country — posing vast financial risks to taxpayers, businesses and communities.
The stakes are high: According to a November analysis by the Office of Management and Budget, $168 billion in federal property and assets is located in high flood risk areas, and stronger storms and sea level rise are projected to drive up annual federal disaster recovery costs along the U.S. coast by $19 billion by 2050 and by $50 billion by 2075.
In an increasingly disaster-prone world, it is prudent to protect public investments from undue risk. But Trump’s new executive order is part of his administration’s systematic assault on laws that protect the public health and environment of communities across the country — all on behalf of wealthy developers and other powerful special interests. American taxpayers deserve better.
Cathleen Kelly is a senior fellow with the Energy and Environment team at the Center for American Progress.
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