Frequently Asked Questions about the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
- What is NEPA?
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (42 USC §4331 et seq). and its implementing regulations at 40 CFR Parts 1500-1508 requires NEH to consider the potential effects of a funded project on the natural and human environment prior to the expenditure of NEH funds.
- Is my project subject to the National Environmental Policy Act?
All NEH-funded projects involving construction, renovation, repair, rehabilitation, or ground disturbances are actions that are subject to review under NEPA, its implementing regulations, and NEH’s NEPA Implementing Procedures (84 FR 23805). Additional information about NEPA is provided by the Council on Environmental Quality.
- When can I start work on my project?
Recipients cannot begin NEH-funded work involving construction, renovation, repair, rehabilitation, or ground or visual disturbance, and NEH cannot release any federal funds, until NEH concludes its NEPA and related Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (54 USC § 306108, and 36 CFR Part 800) reviews. See FAQ’s on Section 106 for additional information.
Recipients may use matching funds for approved non-construction preparatory activities, such as architectural and engineering designs, permitting, and licenses, and may also undertake work related to the environmental and historic preservation reviews prior to NEH completing the NEPA and Section 106 review processes.
- What happens if my organization has already started physical work on our project when we submit an application?
If the project is already underway and you have questions about your organization’s eligibility for NEH grant funds, please contact the Division or Office identified in your program’s Notice of Funding Opportunity. NEH encourages all applicants to submit their applications early in the project's planning process to avoid limiting the NEH’s consideration of project alternatives when there are unresolved environmental effects (40 CFR §1506.1).
- Who conducts the NEPA review?
While NEH is responsible for ensuring the requirements of NEPA are met, NEH cannot meet its obligations without the cooperation and assistance of NEH recipients. All NEPA information and communications the recipient submits to the NEH Environmental Officer, the public, and other parties, the recipient must also concurrently upload to the NEH electronic grant management system (eGMS Reach).
Depending on the proposed project scope, it may fall into one of the following three levels of NEPA review: (a) categorically excluded from preparation of either an Environmental Assessment or an Environmental Impact Statement; (b) Environmental Assessment; or (c) Environmental Impact Statement.
- What does a NEPA review involve?
- Categorical Exclusions (CATEX)
If a CATEX applies, your project will not require further NEPA review because the activities individually or cumulatively do not have significant adverse effects on the human environment (barring extraordinary circumstances). NEH’s National Environmental Policy Act Implementing Procedures, Appendices A - General Categorical Exclusions, and B - Program Specific Categorical Exclusions, provide a listing of CATEX activities.
NEH will usually make a CATEX determination prior to or shortly after a recipient receives an offer letter from NEH.
- Environmental Assessment (EA)
A NEPA EA is a concise study that identifies potential environmental impacts of a land development action and analyzes a broad set of parameters including biodiversity, environmental justice, wetlands, air and water pollution, traffic, geotechnical risks, public safety issues and hazardous substance issues. It provides sufficient evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI).
If your project does not fall under the scope of NEH’s CATEXs or involve an extraordinary circumstance, NEH and the recipient will need to prepare an EA. Activities that typically require preparing an EA involve significant changes to land use including:
- construction of new buildings or expansion of existing buildings, including supporting facilities (parking, etc.) exceeding 12,000 SF footprint;
- a change in land use that is significant (such as the project is an integral part of a larger redevelopment);
- an impact within or to a flood plain or wetland;
- a determination of an adverse effect that cannot be mitigated on a property eligible for inclusion the National Register of Historic Places;
- potential involvement of other Federal, State, or local environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act; and
- an extraordinary circumstance, such as broad public controversy, or extensive site contamination.
If your proposed project already has a completed NEPA EA for another federal agency or a state equivalent, please submit it to NEH for consideration. Equivalent documentation from a state or local government must meet the requirements in NEH’s National Environmental Policy Act Implementing Procedures, Section 11 – Environmental Assessments. If the document is incomplete or indicates other issues such as adverse impact floodplain, wetlands, site contamination, hazardous materials, farmland, or endangered species, etc., these must be resolved and approved by NEH as part of the NEPA process. At the conclusion of an EA NEH will either issue a Finding of No Significant Environmental Impact (FONSI), or determine that the project will have a significant impact, and consider preparation of an EIS.
- Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)
Proposed projects determined by NEH to have a significant impact on the environment require preparation of an EIS. Scoping for an EIS is a multi-step process that involves coordination with other agencies, notices in the U.S. Federal Register, and to the public. NEH’s National Environmental Policy Act Implementing Procedures, Section 12 – Environmental Impact Statements, provides additional guidance on the contents of an EA.
While each EIS varies in scope and complexity, on average they take up to three years to complete. NEH expects projects that require an EIS to be rare, and will consider the scope and length of time to complete the EIS when making funding decisions.
- Categorical Exclusions (CATEX)
For additional information and guidance on Section NEPA, you may access the websites below. NEH’s Federal Environmental Officer is also available to answer questions about the Section 106 review process. The contact information for the Environmental Officer is as follows: 202-606-8576, @email, or Federal Environmental Officer, National Endowment for the Humanities, Room 2026.3, 400 7th Street SW, Washington DC 20506.