By Sam Schipani
Since the early days of his campaign for president, Donald Trump has been promising to make major investments in infrastructure. While the president has not been able to push his $1.5 trillion infrastructure package through Congress, during the past few months lawmakers have moved forward with small pieces of legislation aimed at improving infrastructure, including a water infrastructure bill that recently passed the Senate with bipartisan support. Legislation to improve infrastructure often enjoys support from both sides of the aisle, but environmental groups have been keeping a close eye on the Republican House to see whether these bills will sneak in any the president's proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA.
NEPA is one of the United States' bedrock environmental laws, and enjoyed broad bipartisan support when President Nixon signed it into law on Jan. 1, 1970. At its core, NEPA's mandate is simple: the federal government is required to look before it leaps into big infrastructure projects by considering potential environmental impacts and keeping the public informed throughout the development process.
Critics of NEPA paint the law as an impossible hurdle to development that has been "weaponized" by environmentalists, and claim that reforming it will cut the red tape that's in the way of important infrastructure projects. Supporters counter that over the past 50 years, NEPA has given Americans a voice to speak up against potential government mismanagement and haphazard infrastructure projects that could impact their communities. According to Earthjustice, as many around 180 pieces of legislation have been introduced over the past six years seeking to attack, undermine, weaken or waive NEPA protections.
When the government proposes a new dam or road—or when a private company seeks to build a project like a pipeline that needs a federal permit— NEPA requires the federal agency associated with the project to take several steps before breaking ground. First, the developer (whether public or private) is required to conduct a study detailing how the project will be built; the potential consequences of the project; alternative ways to develop the project that will achieve the same goal; and any measures that can be taken to lessen harmful impacts of the project. Then, the agency must hold public hearings and involve local experts in the project's development. Finally, unless the project qualifies for a "categorical exclusion" because of its low impact, the government needs to circulate one of two kinds of reports: an environmental impact statement (EIS) for actions with potentially significant impacts and public controversy, or an environmental assessment (EA) for projects where the impacts are less controversial.
Although the Council on Environmental Quality manages the implementation of NEPA (a job made significantly more difficult since its staff were kicked out of their headquarters early last year), the public is the true overseer of the NEPA process. Except in California, NEPA does not necessarily require that the least environmentally harmful course of action be taken, but rather requires that the public be involved with the decision-making process.
"It's a really key part of our democracy," said Scott Slesigner, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There is an expectation that when the government is going to affect your life, particularly in a local community, you should have a say."
Historically, NEPA has not only prevented development that would hurt communities, but has also helped the federal government to create more effective infrastructure with the help of local knowledge. Every state can claim a success story from NEPA, and often projects are improved after a NEPA review. For example, when seismic testing was proposed for oil and gas leases in the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument in Southwestern Colorado, citizens groups were able to use NEPA to work with the Bureau of Land Management to design an exploration project that enabled lessees to obtain the seismic information they needed while avoiding the land's most significant cultural features and fragile habitats. Residents of small Virginia towns in the Blue Ridge foothills used the public involvement afforded by NEPA to create a less expensive plan for a highway set to pass through their town, including more aesthetically pleasing features that reduced speeding and promoted pedestrian safety.
"Because these people are local, they can make suggestions that improve the project itself and do so with less environmental and economic impact," Slesinger said.
While the NEPA process does take time, the dramatic delays held up by NEPA opponents are a red herring swimming in misinformation. In his 2018 State of the Union Address, President Trump claimed that such reviews stall infrastructure projects like "a simple road" for 10 years. But according to a 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office, less than one percent of projects require the most time-consuming level of NEPA review—an EIS—and even then, the average time to complete these reviews is less than five years. NEPA is designed to streamline the process in line with a project's impacts, as well as speed projects along for emergency situations. Approximately 95 percent of federal projects that require environmental review qualify for categorical exclusions that allow them to bypass such rigorous review.
Besides being a handy proxy for opposition to any kind environmental regulation, Slesigner said NEPA opponents often use it as a "scapegoat" or "diversion" when infrastructure projects are not able to secure sufficient funding. A 2016 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury analyzed 40 significant transportation and water projects whose completion had slowed or stalled and found that "a lack of public funding [was] by far the most common factor hindering [their] completion." Delays resulting from environmental review and permitting were identified as a challenge to completing less than a quarter of the projects. Similar studies by the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Water Works Association, and National Waterways Foundation, also found lack of funding—not environmental review or permitting—to be a major barrier to infrastructure development.
Nevertheless, the attacks on NEPA continue. A recent Interior Department directive limits Interior agency reviews to 150 pages and one year to decide on all but the most complex projects, which NEPA supporters say rushes sufficient analysis and cuts essential time for public input.
With all of the movement on infrastructure policy in Congress, environmental groups are right to have an eye on NEPA. Local communities may be wise to join such vigilance—after all, it's their voice at stake.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
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Where Does the Deficiency Begin?<p>Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. The question of when a deficiency starts is correspondingly controversial. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular.Not only is the pseudo-scientific literature on the "sun vitamin" experiencing an upswing, but the number of published studies has also increased enormously in recent years. For example, in 2019 <a href="https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/40/4/1109/5126915" target="_blank">a study found that</a> Vitamin D is responsible for keeping the skeleton functional and is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. <br></p>
An All-Rounder<p>Vitamin D levels in the body rise and fall according to sun exposure. If sufficient UV rays reach the skin, the body is able to produce the vitamin itself. However, the human body only derives an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its daily requirement from food.</p><p>The vitamin D that we synthesize from sunlight or food is not biologically active at first. Before the kidneys can produce the biologically active form of the vitamin, known as calcitriol, and release it into the blood, some metabolic processes must take place beforehand.</p><p>In addition, many organs have receptors to which the precursor of calcitriol binds. Further, this substance is also present in blood.</p><p>From this precursor, the organs then produce calcitriol themselves, which the body then uses for countless other processes in the body. This form of vitamin D thus regulates insulin secretion, inhibits tumor growth, and promotes the formation of red blood cells as well as the survival and activity of macrophages, which are important for the <a href="https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/7/2502/htm" target="_blank">immune system.</a></p>
Low Vitamin D, Severe COVID-19 Disease?<p>A research study carried out <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352364620300067?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">at the University of Hohenheim</a> has now established a link between vitamin D deficiency, certain previous diseases, and severe cases of COVID-19.</p><p>According to the study, "there is a lot of evidence that several non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome) are associated with low vitamin D plasma levels. These comorbidities, together with the often accompanying vitamin D deficiency, increase the risk of severe COVID-19 events."</p><p>"This statement is completely correct," said Martin Fassnacht, head of endocrinology at the University Hospital of Würzburg. However, he qualifies that it is a pure association, "i.e. a mere observation that these events occur together.</p><p>Dr. Fassnacht is very critical of the hype surrounding vitamin D, but not because he denies the vitamin serves important functions. However, studies on humans have not been able to show that vitamin D has the healing powers many often propagate.</p><p>Fassnacht says, "If you take a closer look, the hopes that the administration of vitamin D has a healing effect have not been confirmed so far."</p>
Association Versus Intervention Studies<p>Many studies on the vitamin are association or observational studies. "By definition, these studies cannot prove the causal relationship, but only point to mere correlations," said Fassnacht. The physician tries to illustrate this with an example:</p><p>"Imagine two groups of 80-year-olds. One group is spry, active and does sports. If you compare them with another group living in nursing homes, the difference in vitamin D levels will be dramatic. Life expectancy would also be extremely different."</p><p>But to try to explain the difference in fitness by vitamin D status alone is far too simplistic. "Vitamin D levels are a good measure of how sick someone is. But not more," says Fassnacht. </p><p>According to Fassnacht, none of the intervention studies carried out to date -- that specifically examined the effect of vitamin D on various diseases -- has been able to confirm the previous association and laboratory studies or the presumed positive effect of vitamin D.</p>
Further Research Is Needed<p>"If a coronavirus infection is suspected, it is therefore absolutely necessary to check the vitamin D status and quickly correct any possible deficit," said the recommendation of the paper published by the University of Hohenheim.</p><p>"Studies are underway to see whether vitamin D helps in COVID-19 infection, but I personally do not believe that this is really the case," says endocrinologist Fassnacht. Nevertheless, he says it is of course useful to carry out these studies.<br></p><p>"I don't want to rule out that there are actually subgroups of people who benefit from an additional vitamin D dose," he says. After all, this has been proven to be the case with a severe deficit.</p><p>In view of the study situation, Fassnacht does not think much of preventive, nationwide vitamin D substitutes. "My belief that the vitamin helps somewhere is very low. But, of course, I can be wrong."</p>
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