What the NEPA lawsuit means for Charity and health care in New Orleans

This past Friday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation filed a lawsuit against FEMA and the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington D.C. court. The suit hinges over the interpretation of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) of 1969, which guides how environmental impact assessments are conducted for federal construction projects.

Though those that favor the proposed medical complex project may seek to describe this action as obstructionist, the facts of the matter support the National Trust's contention that the suit is designed to encourage the reevaluation of alternative plans that contend that modern hospitals could be brought online faster and for less money at different sites.

From the National Trust:

 

“Bulldozing a historic neighborhood in New Orleans in order to build these two medical centers is wrong, both legally and morally,” said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “There are other sites that would bring state-of-the-art medical care to the community faster and for less money, without destroying Mid-City.” 

“VA and FEMA have refused to recognize the magnitude of the community destruction these projects will wreak,” Moe said. “Instead, they have dismissed this massive demolition as ‘insignificant,’ and have chosen the most destructive alternatives, offering nothing more than token mitigation measures. We hope this lawsuit will lead VA and FEMA to go back and revisit the less destructive options.”

“A lot has changed since VA and FEMA announced their decisions,” said Moe. “The new administration in Washington has placed an emphasis on sound environmental reviews, and on transparency, accountability, and public input, all of which were short-changed in New Orleans. Also, it has become clear in recent months that the supposed ‘synergy’ between the LSU and VA hospitals is nothing more than a fiction, eliminating the need to co-locate the hospitals in Mid-City. Given these major changes, we expect the agencies can now find a better way to deliver much needed health care in New Orleans.”

 

The National Trust asserts that FEMA and the VA violated NEPA laws by failing to issue an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that would analyze the environmental consequences of the demolition and construction on nearby neighborhoods. The absence of this statement has allowed LSU and the VA to break the development project into 'tiers' that have guided how public participation and planning around the hospitals has occurred. Rather than assessing the big picture, the whole of the development, the process at play has purposively only focused on individual components.

Those that oppose the reopening of Charity or the reexamination of faster, cheaper, and less destructive means of restoring health care to New Orleans have been pretty quick to spin the introduction of this lawsuit as evidence that preservationists are blocking hospital construction. Such a characterization, however, distorts the realities of the hospital debate.

The proposed LSU/VA complex has been on the drawing board for a long time. LSU and the VA both remain short of funding targets. Shovels are no closer to hitting the dirt on their plan than they were two years ago. Enough is enough. We need health care, jobs, economic development, and sustainable urban planning in New Orleans now. This proposed multi-billion-dollar boondoggle has dragged on for long enough without any tangible results on the ground. Now it is time to reevaluate the site selection decision to look for faster and less expensive ways to bring affordable health care back to New Orleans.

There is a compromise proposal that would bring brand-new hospitals online in New Orleans without displacing a residential community, for less money, and in less time. This lawsuit is designed not to block the construction of new hospitals but to force agencies to substantively reconsider a narrow-minded site selection decision that could lead to even more delays over the course of the design and construction process. The fastest and best way to restore health care and rejuvenate the medical industry in New Orleans is through thorough consideration of the RMJM alternative to build a new LSU teaching hospital in the historic Charity facade and move the site of the proposed VA hospital closer to the historic downtown hospital corridor.