SEPA, It’s Not a Ghost

October 30th, 2014 - Carmichael Clark

Most people who deal with SEPA, or the State Environmental Policy Act (RCW 43.21C) have heard that SEPA is only about the process and not relevant. While there is great focus upon compliance with the SEPA process, the process helps insure that the purposes and policy of the Act are met.

SEPA contains laudable stated purposes and policies. The purposes of SEPA, are set forth by Washington’s Legislature as follows: The purposes of this chapter are: (1) To declare a state policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between humankind and the environment; (2) to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere; (3) and [to] stimulate the health and welfare of human beings; and (4) to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the state and nation. (RCW 43.21C.010)

In the statute, the Washington Legislature declares a policy for the state and puts the responsibility for carrying out the policy on the shoulders of the state and all agencies of the state (which includes local governments, bodies, boards etc). (RCW 43.21C.020) The way the SEPA purposes and policy are effectuated is through a process which by the end, determines whether a proposed action is likely to have significant, probable adverse environmental impacts.

When there is a proposed action which requires governmental approval, before the action can be approved someone called “the responsible official”, will make a “threshold determination” as to whether an action will likely have probable significant adverse environmental impacts (so long as the action is not “categorically exempt” or meet some other exemption). If it is determined that an action will not likely have probable significant adverse environmental impacts, then the SEPA process is concluded after this determination and the proposed action will move forward subject to other necessary approvals.  If an action may have probable significant adverse environmental impacts even with mitigation measures, then an environmental impact statement is required to be prepared.  This environmental impact statement helps the agency determine the extent of the adverse impacts and whether there are reasonable alternative actions and/or mitigation measures that would avoid or minimize adverse impacts or even enhance environmental quality.  The statement helps the agency in making final decisions on an action.

The above is a very simplistic description of the SEPA process to determine the likelihood of probable significant adverse environmental impacts which can involve multiple scientists, land use experts, public debate, litigation, time and often a lot of expense. At times, a few outspoken interests might dictate whether there is a likelihood of probable significant adverse environmental impact.  Compliance with SEPA can be a long and public process as many people here have great respect and concern for our environment.

Some say that SEPA is obsolete now that Washington has a state wide land use law, the Washington Growth Management Act. Yet despite the mandates of land use regulations, proposed actions still must comply with SEPA and compliance with state and local regulations may not be adequate to address the likelihood of probable significant adverse environmental impacts from a proposed action.  SEPA is still relevant and necessary if we want to achieve the policies set by the Washington Legislature.


Simi Jain, Attorney

Disclaimer: This article and blog are intended to inform the reader of general legal principles applicable to the subject area. They are not intended to provide legal advice regarding specific problems or circumstances. Readers should consult with competent counsel with regard to specific situations.

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