Did the Federal Railroad Administration Properly Follow the EIS Process?

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released their final EIS on Friday to straighten the tracks of the Northeast Corridor. This is nearing the end of the EIS process, but did the FRA follow the process correctly?

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process begins when a federal agency develops a proposal to take a major federal action.

Federal agencies prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) if a proposed major federal action is determined to significantly affect the quality of the human environment. The regulatory requirements for an EIS are detailed and rigorous.

Summary of the EIS Process

1.) An agency publishes a Notice of Intent in the Federal Register. The Notice of Intent informs the public of the upcoming environmental analysis and describes how the public can become involved in the EIS preparation.

This Notice of Intent starts the scoping process, which is the period in which the federal agency and the public collaborate to define the range of issues and possible alternatives to be addressed in the EIS.

During this scoping process, which appears to have started in February 2012, would have been the best time to contact the local towns. Charlestown does not appear to have been contacted nor were they even aware of the scoping process. The EIS does not include the 1,200 acre Carter Preserve in the inventory of park lands. The EIS has to account for impacts to “Wild and Scenic” rivers, but the Pawcatuck is not on the list of such rivers, even though the proposed train route will cross the Pawcatuck several times. There are lots of omissions such as these in the EIS data. Had the FRA made local contact at this time, they would have been introduced to The Nature Conservancy, the Westerly and Charlestown Land Trusts, the Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association, the Charlestown Historical Society and others. None of these non-profit stake holders were contacted or notified.

2.) A draft EIS is published for public review and comment for a minimum of 45 days.

Charlestown and the affected land owners were not notified of the existence of a draft EIS, there was no public review, and no public comment. This draft EIS was published in November 2015,

3.) Upon close of the comment period, agencies consider all substantive comments and, if necessary, conduct further analyses.

No public comments were solicited, were any received?

4.) A final EIS is then published, which provides responses to substantive comments.

This is what happened on December 16, the final EIS was published. A Charlestown resident happened to be watching the news on Channel 12 when Senator Reed was announcing that the new rail lines would still serve Providence. Channel 12’s website had a link to the final EIS and that was the beginning of local awareness of the FRA plan.

5.) Publication of the final EIS begins the minimum 30-day “wait period,” in which agencies are generally required to wait 30 days before making a final decision on a proposed action.

This “feedback” period ends for Charlestown on January 31.

6.) The EIS process ends with the issuance of the Record of Decision (ROD).

Is this a flawed EIS?

There was no effort to involve the town of Charlestown or any of the impacted land owners during the scoping process. The process is meant to be collaborative, but collaboration can’t happen if the public and local government are not informed of the process.

The draft EIS was also not shared with the town government, other stakeholders, or the public. We all missed the comment period.

The final EIS was released one week before Christmas when many are away. Purely by chance we are finally learning about the proposal, but at a difficult time to organize a response.

Every step of this process has failed to meet the goal of public involvement which is a requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act, a federal law.

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