When I interviewed with Earthjustice, Marty Hayden (Earthjustice's vice president of policy & legislation) asked me, "What do you know avout NEPA?" I'd never heard of it, or read it. He told me, "Take a look and let me know if you'd be interested in helping us protect it." I was hesitant at first because I wasn't an environmental lawyer, but that changed after I read it. When we met again, I told him it didn't read like an environmental law. To me, NEPA sounded more like a civil rights and civil engagement law.
And that it truly is! NEPA, and the even better version that operates in California, CEQA, the California Environmental Policy Act, both give ordinary people real power to challenge proposed projects that the government "just knows" will be great. Without the procedures that NEPA and CEQA provide, those who are potentially affected by a proposed governmental action have the right to comment - to object - but there is no process to make the government actually pay attention to any protest received.
In fact, when NEPA and CEQA are not available, government agencies and elected officials typically ignore objections and questions. They say, "Thank you for your comment," and then they do what they have already decided that they want to do, anyway.
When NEPA and CEQA are involved, if the government wants to do something that "might" have an adverse environmental impact, the government can't just ignore questions and objections and do what it has already decided is a good idea. Before approving and implementing any project, the government must first issue a "Draft" Environmental Impact Statement (EIS - NEPA) or a Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR - CEQA) and circulate it for public comment. Then, when comments are received, the governmental body proposing the project must respond, substantively, to each and every comment received, and issue a "Final" EIS or EIR. The government must then consider the Final EIS or EIR before taking action. In the case of CEQA, which is stronger than NEPA, the government must actually modify the proposed project if the Final EIR shows that there are feasible ways to reduce or eliminate negative impacts.
The Courts have been willing to make the government follow through, too, so the government can't easily dodge these obligations. That does mean, just like Raul Garcia says, that ordinary people can demand and obtain environmental justice. It's a "civil engagement law," and the law is on their side!
Development and business interests, and governments dedicated to advancing those interests, can't get away with it if ordinary people will get organized and get involved, and demand that the government actually respond substantively to environmental concerns.*
So, if you ever hear that CEQA, or NEPA, is just some way for "NIMBY" anti-everything people to stop good things from happening, don't believe it. It's always hard to hold "our" government accountable, and to prevent the government from making decisions that ignore real impacts to real people, and to the physical environment.
Thanks to NEPA and CEQA, it can be done. Take it from Raul Garcia!