Coastal Pollution:

Environmental Impacts of Federal Activities Can Be Better Managed

RCED-91-85: Published: Jun 5, 1991. Publicly Released: Jul 5, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined whether: (1) federal agency activities affecting coastal areas were undergoing required environmental reviews; and (2) such reviews ensured that all major environmental impacts were considered in the decisionmaking process.

GAO found that: (1) such federal activities as highway construction, harbor or river dredging, and federal land transfers had significant impacts on coastal zones; (2) coastal zone management officials noted that the environmental review processes provided adequate information to assess the environmental impacts of proposed federal activities; (3) state and federal coastal zone officials disagreed on whether certain federal agency activities were subject to environmental review requirements and on the adequacy of environmental reviews involving indirect impacts; (4) comprehensive plans that addressed regional environmental goals and the infrastructure needed to support growth could help officials in assessing the cumulative impacts of federal activities in coastal regions; (5) significant growth-related problems occurred in coastal areas where there was no comprehensive planning, or where such planning took place only after significant development occurred; (6) states with comprehensive plans for coastal areas were better equipped to assess the long-term, cumulative impacts of proposed activities; and (7) although coastal zone management statutes encouraged states to develop comprehensive plans, there was little guidance available to states on developing or using comprehensive plans to assess cumulative impacts.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: NOAA will rely on existing regulations at this time. If a dispute arises at a later date that could be addressed by new regulations, then NOAA will reevaluate whether new regulations are necessary. However, GAO maintains that before conflicts arise, NOAA should ensure that regulations clearly address federal activities that have been disputed in the past.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to ensure that regulations currently being developed to implement the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments of 1990 clearly address those activities that have historically been the subject of disputes between state coastal managers and federal agencies and stipulate whether such activities are normally expected to affect a coastal zone and are, therefore, subject to the Coastal Zone Management Act consistency provisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA has coordinated with CEQ on the development of such guidance; however, no guidance has been issued as a result of this effort. NOAA has, however, issued guidance on nonpoint pollution that partially addresses this recommendation. NOAA does not plan further action on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator, NOAA, in consultation with the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), to develop and issue additional guidance on how to conduct environmental assessments of the indirect impacts of proposed federal activities in the coastal zone.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Pursuant to sections 309 and 617 of the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorizing Amendments, NOAA issued guidance to states for developing comprehensive plans and addressing cumulative impacts. NOAA is providing technical assistance under the Coastal Oceans Program on cumulative and secondary impacts. NOAA developed a project to provide a publication to improve states' understanding of cumulative impacts.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator, NOAA, to improve assistance to the states on how to address the cumulative impacts of activities on the coastal zone. In this regard, NOAA should: (1) update and expand its existing guidance on how to develop comprehensive plans, with emphasis on identifying and assessing cumulative impacts; and (2) better facilitate the exchange of information between states on innovative and effective techniques for using comprehensive planning to better assess cumulative impacts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce


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