An Overview of Environmental Assessment Preparation


Photo Credit: Jen Lynnette

Whenever a construction or transportation project is planned, and it is unknown what its impact might be on the environment, an environmental assessment (EA) must be prepared that will inform the community of what the effect on the environment is expected to be. The public is given a period of time to respond to the EA by either agreeing with its findings or making suggestions for improvement. There are many facets to the preparation of the EA, but here is a brief overview of what is required and why.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that was signed into law in 1969 established a policy requiring certain governmental agencies, whether local, state or federal, to consider the impact on the environment of any proposed construction project. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) works with NEPA to be sure that any projects involving transportation also consider the impact of the project on:

  • The natural environment.
  • Economic impact on the community.
  • Social impact on individual residents.

If it is unclear whether or not a construction or transportation project will have an impact, an EA must be prepared. An EA is a public written document that is published for 30 days before the commencement of a proposed project and is available for public comment. It should describe briefly what analysis has been done so that enough information is provided for the approving agency to be able to determine whether an environmental impact statement (EIS) is necessary. If not, the agency will issue a finding of no significant impact (FONSI).

When the EA determines there is a Need for an EIS

If the EA determines that the project will have a significant impact on the environment, then an EIS will need to be prepared. An EIS provides a detailed analysis of the impact the project will have on all aspects of the environment. It will discuss why the project is necessary even though there is an impact, and articulate what alternatives have been explored. It also will provide information on all measures that will be taken to mitigate any adverse effects.

Determination of FONSI

A FONSI is issued at the end of the EA process and includes all public comments. Publication of the FONSI is not required, although the FHWA recommends that the public be informed of its existence by publishing notices in the local newspaper.

Benefits of an EA to the Project Developer and the Community

When the EA is performed early in the project, it is easier for the project developer to identify potential problems and resolve them before a lot of time and money have been invested in the project. Modifications can be made and violations of any laws or regulations can be avoided. When an EA is available to the public, the likelihood of the community accepting and approving the project is increased.

The community benefits when the natural environment is preserved and biodiversity is maintained. There are fewer conflicts about how natural resources are being used. When a FONSI has been issued, well-informed citizens can take pride in knowing how a certain project will benefit their community while not harming its environment.

EA Preparation Tips

EA preparers need to keep in mind the EA report is primarily for the public. It should be as short as possible and expressed in ordinary language while avoiding jargon. It should encompass all relevant information including reasons why some potential topics were not explored. The report should include both negative and positive aspects of the project.