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Monthly Newsletter
September 2006

How Can Agencies Improve the Quality of Environmental Documents?
A New Guide Answers Your Questions

An abstract graphic of a flower with photo inserts in the petals represents a document on the improvement of NEPA documentation
A joint AASHTO/ACEC committee, in cooperation with FHWA, has developed a report to help agencies improve the quality of their NEPA documents. The report offers detailed advice on organizing, writing, and producing clear, understandable documents that can help to engage the public, support decision-making, and facilitate regulatory and legal review.

NEPA environmental documents can be challenging to write; they can also be challenging to read and review. In trying to meet the requirements outlined in NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act), agencies are prone to producing overly large, wordy, and complex documents. Compounding these problems is the use of legal terms and technical jargon, which can confuse readers. While these documents must provide evidence of a thorough analysis of technical data and hold up in court if litigated, they must also meet the requirements of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to provide clear explanations that can be understood by the general public. It can be difficult for agencies to produce brief, "reader friendly" documents while assuring the document is legally sufficient. Many writers need technical assistance to produce documents that achieve regulatory compliance and enable public involvement. A recently published report offers proven recommendations for making environmental documents more effective, engaging, and useful to decision-makers and the public.

What is a Quality NEPA Document?

In 2003, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) formed a committee with the intent of improving the readability, functionality and effectiveness of environmental documents, specifically Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) and Environmental Assessments (EAs) prepared for transportation projects in compliance with NEPA. The committee formed three teams to address the individual topics of 1) quality and clarity of NEPA documents, 2) legal sufficiency, and 3) training and education. In May 2006, the committee published its comprehensive report, Improving the Quality of Environmental Documents, which contained the results of work completed by the first two teams. The document can be accessed on the AASHTO Hot Documents Website. The training and education team is continuing to work with FHWA's Environmental Competency Building Program to establish the basic level of competency required for developing and managing high quality NEPA documents that result in successful project decision-making.

In drafting its report, the committee built on the work of several organizations, including the National Cooperative Highway Research Program's (NCHRP) Project 25-25 Synthesis on Data Needs for EA and EIS Documentation, Washington State DOT's Reader Friendly Document Tool Kit, and the California Department of Transportation's (CALTRANS) North and Central Regions Style Guide for Environmental Documents, which can be found on the CALTRANS website.

The report identifies three core principles for creating a quality NEPA document. Using these principles will help guide the writing of an environmental document that can be understood by technical and non-technical readers, whether they are project stakeholders, members of the general public, or decision-makers.

"Environmental Impact Statements shall be written in plain language and may use appropriate graphics so that decision-makers and the public can readily understand them."

CEQ regulations,
40 CFR Section 1502.8
  • Tell the story of the project so that the reader can easily understand the purpose and need for the project, how each alternative would meet the project goals, and the strengths and weaknesses associated with each alternative.
  • Keep the document as brief as possible, using clear and concise writing, an easy-to-use format, effective graphics and visual elements, and discussion of issues and impacts in proportion to their significance.
  • Ensure that the document meets all legal requirements in a way that is easy to follow for regulators and technical reviewers. Some key points highlighted in the report include: identify and explain key assumptions, describe methods used to develop data, use effective visuals to present key results, thoroughly analyze data, document compliance, provide overview of major project issues, and review data to ensure internal consistency.

A quality NEPA document will facilitate public involvement, document agency decision-making, and help avoid lawsuits. As noted in the report, Washington State DOT's new "reader-friendly" NEPA documents have generated higher levels of public response, with substantive, project-specific comments.

How is a Quality NEPA Document Organized and Produced?

Educational Opportunities

The training and education team is continuing to work with FHWA's Environmental Competency Building Program to establish the basic level of competency required for developing and managing high quality NEPA documents that result in successful project decision-making.

Visit the ECB website for more information.

Some agencies have created templates or guides that specify how their NEPA documents should be organized. Developing and using a template helps to ensure the agency's environmental documents include all necessary information in a readable and functional format. Rather than providing a template, the committee's report endorses the basic "blueprint" outlined in the NCHRP Project 25-25's Synthesis on Data Needs for EA and EIS Documentation as an effective framework for organizing most EIS documents. The report provides a thorough overview of alternative approaches to formatting NEPA documents. In addition, it presents recommendations and considerations for effective document development and production processes.

Improving the Quality of Environmental Documents describes in detail a blueprint for document writing and how it differs from traditional outlines. The blueprint includes three main parts: the document summary, the main body, and the appendices and technical reports. The document summary provides a comprehensive summary of the project, including key issues, the alternatives and how they were considered, and the selected preferred alternative. The main body has six subsections: the purpose and need; alternatives considered; environmental resources, impacts and mitigation; public comments and agency coordination; section 4(f); and comparison and selection of alternatives. To "de-clutter" the main body of the document, the appendices and technical report section houses all of the supporting information used to develop the document. Although the formats of NEPA documents can differ, this blueprint is a starting point for shaping a well-written NEPA document.

Is Your Document Legally Sufficient?

The final section of the report addresses the FHWA legal sufficiency of NEPA documents: the FHWA legal sufficiency review, common trouble spots, and how to create legally defensible NEPA documents. The purpose of the FHWA legal sufficiency review is to ensure that the lead agency's process and evaluations comply with applicable laws, regulations and executive orders, and could be sustained in Federal court if legally challenged. In addition to providing considerable background on legal sufficiency, the report recommends involving an attorney early in the project development process. The attorney can help to ensure that your document is aligned with NEPA law, address potential litigation risks, and assist in compiling the administrative record and drafting and revising the document.

FHWA Supports Clear NEPA Documents

The FHWA subscribes to the philosophy that the goal of the NEPA process is better decisions and not more documentation. FHWA's Policy Memorandum fully supports the recommendations of the committee's report and hopes that State DOTs and their consultants, as well as FHWA offices and Federal resource agencies, find this Improving the Quality of Environmental Documents to be a useful tool. While the report describes different approaches and formats, the most important goal is that each NEPA document is organized so that the range of its potential readers will understand the purpose and need of the project, the alternatives, and the decision-making process. For more information about the report, or about educational opportunities, please visit http://www.environment.transportation.org or http://www.environment.fhwa.dot.gov/ecb/index.aspx.

Contact Information

Lamar Smith
FHWA Office of Project Development and
Environmental Review
400 Seventh Street, SW
Washington, DC 20590
Phone: 202-366-8994
Lamar.Smith@dot.gov

SAFETEA-LU News

Visit the new website for Planning and Environment Linkages. The website provides: an overview of the Planning and Environment Linkage approach and its benefits, including tips on getting started, effective practices, additional resources, relevant SAFETEA-LU provisions, and FHWA Planning and Environment contacts.

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