In 1958, Dr. Edward Teller took a team of nuclear scientists to Alaska for Project Chariot, which was intended to demonstrate the peaceful use of atomic energy by carving out a harbor with the aid of six thermonuclear bombs. It's safe to say they didn't think about filing an environmental impact statement.
Thankfully, Project Chariot never materialized, but mammoth government agencies have ruined plenty of people's backyards and scenery in other ways. Wouldn't it be nice if there were a process to protect the rights of citizens when some bureau or other decided to dig next door?
The good news is that there is such a process, and the body that oversees it costs every person in the U.S. less than a penny a year. The bad news is that Congress is trying to shut it down, although Sen. Christopher S. Bond has an opportunity to save it.
On Jan. 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act, which forced federal agencies to consider the effect of their actions on the environment by producing environmental impact statements. Although lightly regarded in the beginning, these studies took a giant leap in credibility a few years later.
The Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation built a dam on Idaho's Teton River in spite of a lawsuit charging that the environmental impact statement was deficient in a number of ways, including its failure to show the safety of such a large earth-filled structure resting on the existing riverbed. When the dam burst in 1976, it killed 17 people and caused $1 billion in property damage. This was a graphic demonstration that "the environment" included humans, too.
Overseeing the environmental impact statement process is a group known as the Council on Environmental Quality. Its job is to set the standards for the nation's long-term environmental health and to referee disputes between agencies over competing environmental issues. In addition, it provides environmental expertise and a conservationist conscience among the president's advisers.
These services make up the first and last line of protection for citizens involved in federal environmental disputes, and come at a bargain-basement price, with a budget almost invisible …