Protect Puget Sound Wild Steelhead: Action Needed by May 4April 09, 2015
Future environmental protections provided by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) have been put at risk by a recent policy proposal by the federal government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Left unchecked, this process will set a dangerous precedent for the future protection of all threatened and endangered species—including orca whales, salmon, and wolves—and critical habitat across the board, making it easier for harmful projects from industry such as timber and mining to be approved.
For the past 11 years NOAA has promised an environmental impact statement (EIS) to rigorously evaluate Puget Sound salmon and steelhead hatcheries—which are one of the four factors widely recognized by NOAA as a major threat to Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed wild salmon and steelhead populations. In April 2015, NOAA suddenly withdrew its draft EIS for all Puget Sound hatcheries after having provided a period of nearly six months for public comment and opted instead for a cursory environmental assessment (EA) of three hatcheries in three different watersheds. By adopting this unorthodox approach and backtracking from an EIS, the federal government is lowering its standards for environmental review, setting a dangerous precedent with respect to the NEPA process.
The Ninth Circuit has clearly described the critical importance of an EIS compared to an EA: “No matter how thorough, an EA can never substitute for preparation of an EIS… An EA simply assesses whether there will be a significant impact on the environment. An EIS weighs any significant impacts of the proposed action against the positive objectives of the project. Preparation of an EIS thus ensures that decision-makers know that there is a risk of significant environmental impact and take that impact into consideration. As such, an EIS is more likely to attract the time and attention of both policymakers and the public.” Anderson v. Evans, 371 F.3d 475, 494 (9th Cir. 2002).
Here are the key points:
1. NOAA’s proposed EA is insufficient and violates NEPA
- An EIS is needed to fully evaluate the cumulative effects of all Puget Sound hatchery programs on threatened & endangered species—including steelhead—throughout Puget Sound.
- Puget Sound hatchery programs can have significant adverse impacts on ESA-listed wild salmon and steelhead, making the proposed approval of the three steelhead hatcheries controversial, thus meeting two of NEPA’s thresholds for an EIS.
2. NOAA has not provided adequate time to review the EA and associated technical documents
- NOAA released the EA on 3/26 with a due date for comments on 4/27, which amounted to 33 days. According to NOAA, all comments submitted from 3/26-4/13 were lost because of NOAA technical difficulties, with no way to contact those that submitted comments. A new due date was set for 5/4. This new due date results in a total of only 21 days to submit comments on over 1,400 pages included in the EA, Hatchery & Genetic Management Plans, and referenced literature.
3. NOAA has not completed a Puget Sound Steelhead Recovery Plan
- A recovery plan is required by law under the ESA; Puget Sound steelhead were ESA-listed eight years ago in 2007.
- A recovery plan is fundamental to an appropriate EA or EIS. It is needed in order to determine what levels of hatchery impacts to each Puget Sound steelhead population, if any, are compatible with recovery.
This issue is far too serious and complex to evaluate with just an EA. If you care about wild steelhead, please take a few minutes and tell NOAA that they need to require an EIS for all Puget Sound hatchery programs. Comments must be received no later than 5p.m. Pacific time on May 4, 2015.