Here’s to SEPA

3- Deschutes River_Wikipedia

Wind farm country near the Deschutes River, sans wind turbines (there are lots nearby)

In the last few years, I’ve worked on proposed wind farm sites doing natural resource surveys in support of permitting. We know that if every inch of space available for wind energy production was used, we’d have lots of good wind energy, but still not enough to cover our needs. We’d also probably be living with other negative environmental consequences, like fewer threatened and endangered birds. Residents weren’t always thrilled about the landscape being gobbled up by turbines (and the view is beautiful). Other times they were thrilled by the dollars coming their way from the lease. Opinions varied, as they will of course, but especially after talking with cattle ranch owners who have been stewards of the land for decades, it was very clear to me that they should be able to have their say.

The SEPA and NEPA processes are there to ensure that projects can’t just appear without the community’s input. Yes, they might delay good things sometimes, and the reporting burden can be a pain, but the overall benefit of the accountability these regulations provide outweighs these occasional negative consequences – just like the overall benefit of wind energy can outweigh the negative effects on wildlife and aesthetics, given that these are arguably less harmful than environmental effects from other energy sources. I didn’t get the sense that Chapter 3 of The Carbon-Efficient City was suggesting we just scrap SEPA (perhaps just modify or streamline for some cases) but I still felt afterwards that the program was missing some positive credit.

As we streamline regulations, we need to remember that “good” projects also have the responsibility to take an objective look at their impacts on the human and natural environment. And so far regulations are the most predictable and consistent framework to make that happen. A new wastewater treatment plant that will reduce pollution to Puget Sound can be a great thing for the environment, but the project should still replace the trees they cut down to make room for the pump station, just like anyone else who wants to build something. It surprised me to encounter resistance to that. Thanks to SEPA and other local environmental regulations, the public may bring to light a real and important effect that project proponents hadn’t seen.

I believe that the occasional delays for good projects will just have to be part of the game – projects can still get built and they may be more successful in the long-term if the approval process provides strong justification and credibility. Thank goodness we have the EIS process with the prospect of the Cherry Point coal terminal project. And given the amount of opposition and public comments on the SR 520 bridge project EIS, sometimes I’m surprised it even went through, but it sure did. Here’s to better things that also will.

-E. Thatcher

Photo credit: Peteforsyth, Wikipedia

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