A Civil Action: The People of the United States vs. The U.S. Postal Service


The Postal Service juggernaut keeps rolling on with its downsizing plans, and it seems prepared to crush whatever stands in its way — postal workers, post offices, communities, history.  There doesn’t seem to be anyone or anything that can stop it — not Congress, not the unions, not the Postal Regulatory Commission.  Perhaps it’s time for the People of the United States to take the U.S. Postal Service to court.

The opportunity for a legal case presented itself just a few days ago when the Postal Service released its Environmental Assessment (EA) of the potential impacts of the Network Rationalization initiative, the plan to consolidate 250 processing plants.  The EA minimizes the potential effects of everything the Postal Service is planning to do, and the case, as they say, looks ripe for judicial review.


The FONSI Scheme

The EA was done pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires government agencies about to embark on an action that could have significant environmental impacts to conduct a thorough review prior to making decisions.

On February 10, the Postal Service released the environmental assessment describing the impacts of the plan.  It’s called the Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA).  You can find a pdf of the PAE here.  (Note: It’s long — 170 pages plus appendices — and may take a while to download.)

Based on the results of the PEA, the Postal Service has issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), indicating that the Network Rationalization plan will not have a significant impact on the environment.

A finding of “no significant impacts” is pretty amazing when you consider that the PAE encompasses everything from air quality to socioeconomic factors, and when you also consider that the scope of the PAE is not limited to the plant consolidation plan.  NEPA requires agencies to consider the “cumulative effects” of a proposed action and the other related actions being proposed because effects may be exacerbated when they interact with each other.

The PAE thus considers several components of the USPS 2010 Action Plan, “Delivering the Future,” such as previous plant closings (AMPs), the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI) to close 3,652 post office, eliminating Saturday delivery, enhanced alternate sites like the Village Post Office, and disposition of “excess buildings.”

That’s a lot to consider, but the PAE still does not go as far as it should have.  At the same time it was doing the PAE, the Postal Service was preparing its Five-Year Plan, and the new business plan goes much further than the 2010 Action Plan.  Just in terms of post offices, for example, closing all 3,652 post offices in the RAOI would save $200 million, but the Business Plan indicates a savings of $2 billion in the retail network. That could only come from closing many thousands of post offices — probably 15,000, the number mentioned several times by the Postmaster General.  The PAE does not even begin to consider the impacts of that component of the Five-Year plan.  (More on the business plan here.)

According to NEPA, the agency doing the environmental review can come to one of three conclusions: (1) the action is a “categorical exclusion” (i.e., it’s so minor there won’t be any significant impacts, like installing energy efficient lighting); (2) there will be a significant environmental impact, in which case the agency must proceed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS); or (3) the impacts are uncertain, in which case the agency must prepare an environmental assessment (EA).  (There’s more about all this in the Citizen’s Guide to the NEPA.)

The Postal Service has gone down the third path, and the PAE, having reviewed the impacts, says the Network Rationalization plan, even combined with the RAOI and other actions, will not have a significantly adverse effect on the environment.

The Postal Service has thus issued a “Finding of No Significant Impact.”  The FONSI’s main purpose is to show why the impacts will be negligible or at least not significant enough to merit a full Environmental Impact Statement.  That would have taken a lot of time and effort, and even more important, it would have given the public an opportunity to get involved in a very considerable way, with a draft EIS, scoping meetings, public comment periods, expert testimony, and a final EIS.

The FONSI means that the environmental review of the Postal Service’s plans will have been very minimal, and the public will have essentially been excluded from any serious involvement with the process.  

Now that the Postal Service has issued the FONSI, it appears that it considers the decision final.  A blog post on Daily Kos says the blogger was told by a Postal Service attorney that there is no public comment period at this time because this is a final agency decision.  However, NEPA regulations say that agencies must make the proposed FONSI available for public review for 30 days if the proposed action is unprecedented, and that certainly seems to be the case.

The Postal Service published the FONSI in the Federal Register on Feb. 10, 2012, and the notice indicates that a copy of the PAE will be made available upon request.  If you’d like more information, you can contact Mr. Thomas G. Day, Chief Sustainability Officer, U.S. Postal Service, 475 L’Enfant Plaza SW., Room 2737, Washington, DC 20260; (202) 268-7488.

The Postal Service did not post a copy of the PAE online, and the Federal Register announcement says nothing about the 30-day period, nor does it invite the public to comment.


Challenging the FONSI

As you might expect, government agencies have used a FONSI to avoid doing an extensive EIS, and there have been several court cases challenging the FONSI.  For example, the National Park Service was asked to increase the number of large cruise ships in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.  The Park Service prepared a FONSI supported by an EA, and the National Parks & Conservation Association disagreed and challenged the agency in court for failing to prepare an EIS.

At this point, it doesn’t look like any organization or association is prepared to take the Postal Service to court to challenge the FONSI, but the possibility of such a lawsuit is in the air.

Last month, Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) wrote a letter to the White House Council on Environmental Quality criticizing the Postal Service’s plan to close the mail processing facility in Buffalo, New York, because it failed to include an environmental impact analysis and therefore violated NEPA.  Higgins asked the White House to put the USPS on notice for its failure to comply with national environmental requirements.

In the letter, Higgins writes, “The Postal Service has arbitrarily chosen the Buffalo facility for closure.  Their justification is non-existent, their public notification is negligible, but they can’t ignore the undeniable environmental impact their actions would have and their legal obligations to review and report on that impact before making a decision.”

Higgins focuses primarily on the increased air pollution — carbon monoxide, particulate matter, etc. — that will be caused by the 70 miles diesel trucks will need to travel to take the mail to another plant.


Air quality impacts

While Higgins is just focusing on one plant, the PAE must evaluate the impacts of closing 250 plants and the thousands of post offices on the RAOI list.  Yet somehow the Postal Service’s PAE dismisses the potential air pollution that will be caused by these initiatives.

In terms of the new network alignment, the Postal Service argues that trucks will operate at much higher levels of capacity, that fewer “links” in the network will reduce the number of trips, and that some mail using surface transportation will be transported by airplane (p. 19).  Overall, hundreds of thousands of miles will be saved, says the Postal Service, so the plan will actually have a positive impact on air quality.

That may very well be true — the numbers are hard to deconstruct — but it does seem strange that when someone mails something across town in Frederick, Maryland, where the plant recently closed, the mail has to be transported back and forth to Baltimore, 50 miles away.  Somehow the network realignment will make improvements that offset such absurdities.

Then there’s the issue of the excessed postal workers who will need to drive much further to the “gaining” facility where they’re transferred.  The PAE acknowledges that the increased driving distance may cause more pollution, but the Postal Service has an answer for that too. The PAE says that since there will be 35,000 fewer employees in the processing network, the number of miles driven back and forth to work will actually decrease, so there will be an overall improvement to air quality.  (That assumes, of course, that these 35,000 former postal employees just stay home and don’t find another job to drive to — and if they do, well, that’s not part of the Postal Service’s contribution to air pollution.)

Since it must also consider “cumulative impacts,” the PAE has a short section on what the RAOI plan to close thousands of post offices might do to air quality.  The discussion fails, however, to do any calculations about how many miles and how much pollution we might be talking about.

A witness in the RAOI Advisory Opinion estimated that if all 3,652 post offices on the RAOI post offices closed, 16 million people would need to drive an additional 2.36 miles round trip once a week, which comes to 2 billion miles a year (Klingenberg testimony, p. 17).

If the Postal Service were to close 15,000 post offices, the average distance to the nearest post office would be much, much further, and something like half the country would be affected.  We could be talking about 40 or 50 billion additional miles a year.

The PAE doesn’t even begin to grapple with such numbers.  It simply says that if customers from a post office or plant that has closed need to travel to another facility, “the Postal Service anticipates adverse impacts on transportation and air quality from the additional vehicle traffic would be negligible as the additional traffic is anticipated to be spread throughout the day. Therefore, a significant cumulative adverse impact on transportation network and air quality at a local level would not occur.” (p. 151)

It’s true that closing post offices and plants probably won’t cause traffic jams or smog over the post office, but only postal science could come up with the conclusion that air pollution isn’t a problem if it’s “spread throughout the day.”  That may be true of the air quality around a particular location, but air pollutants don’t just disappear.  This is just a version of the notion that “the solution to pollution is dilution.”

Perhaps the Postal Service thinks that all this extra driving won’t be necessary because customers will be able to do business at one of the new Village Post Offices — a type of contract postal unit in which a private business, like a convenience store, sells stamps and Flat-Rate boxes.  The Village Post Office is mentioned several times in the PAE as an example of “enhanced and expanded alternate access sites.”  When it introduced the idea in July, the Postal Service said it envisioned thousands of the VPOs replacing traditional post offices, but so far it has opened just nine of them.  (A list is here, last page.)


Socioeconomic impacts

Another area of potential environmental impact is the socioeconomic impact on communities.  During the Advisory Opinion process for the RAOI, the Postal Service was dismissive of concerns that losing a post office would have significantly negative impacts on a community.  Witness after witness testified how closing a post office affects small businesses, vulnerable populations, the economic vitality of the community, its very sense of identity.  The Postal Service didn’t seem interested.

The PAE is similarly unconcerned about socioeconomic impacts on community.  The PAE states, “since the facilities identified under the prior AMPs and the RAO Initiative are those with low postal operational activity, the impact on communities of the closures affects fewer customers and would therefore not be significant on a national level.  Therefore, when these Postal Service actions are combined with the Proposed Action, the potential impact on communities would remain moderate on a local level, and, therefore, less than significant on a national level”  (p. 148).

While closing a small post office in a small town can have serious impacts, the closing of a large processing plant can be even more significant.  The PAE cites a study done about the economic impacts on losing 300 jobs in Springfield, Illinois, which found that the direct economic losses — those associated with lost postal salaries and business to suppliers — combined with indirect losses — the service, retail, and other non-USPS jobs and business that would be lost — would amount to about $42 million a year in outputs and $31 million in GDP.  (There’s more on the economic impacts here.)

If communities suffer the loss of 35,000 jobs, as proposed in the Network Rationalization plan, we’re talking about something like $4 billion a year.  The Five-Year plan calls for a reduction in the workforce of 155,000.  That could mean impacts on the order of $18 billion a year.  And there’s “no significant impact” to worry about?


Impacts on historic properties

Another aspect of the environment that the PAE considers briefly, and then dismisses with “no significant impact,” involves historic properties.  The PAE acknowledges that some of the post offices and processing plants being studied for closure and consolidation are housed in historic buildings. Some of them are listed on the National Register of Historic Place, and several others are eligible for listing.

The PAE identifies the following processing plants of historic significance:

On the National Register
Hutchinson CSMPC, KS
Amsterdam CSMPC, NY
Pendleton CSMPC, OR
Eligible for the National Register
Dodge City CSMPC, KS
Iron Mountain P&DC, MI
Alliance CSMPC, NE
Poteau CSMPC, OK
Kenosha CSMPC, WI
Portage, CSMPC, WI
Unknown but occupied for more than 50 years
Detroit P&DC, MI

The PAE does not extend the discussion of historic properties to the post offices on the RAOI list, but there are probably about 45 of them.  An unofficial list of them is here.

The issue of historic properties is much larger than this, however.  The Postal Service has embarked on a plan to sell off many of its properties, and it has enlisted the help of the world’s largest commercial real estate broker, CB Richard Ellis, to manage the sales.

The Postal Service hasn’t said how far it plans to go with divesting its property assets, but the Postal Service owns about 8,000 post offices, and of these, some 2,500 are either on the National Register of Historic Places or eligible to be listed.  About a thousand of these post offices were built during the New Deal, and some 800 of them have valuable murals and sculptures.  (There’s an unofficial list of the New Deal post offices here, and more about the historic post offices here and here.)

All of these historic post offices are at risk, yet the PAE has practically nothing to say about it.  If 15,000 post offices are closed, how many of them will be historic properties?  Already we have seen many historic post offices closed and sold, without even going through a discontinuance process.  That’s because the retail business was moved to another location and the closing of the historic post office was classified merely as a “relocation.”  That’s been the story in Venice, CaliforniaPalm Beach, FloridaGreenwich, Connecticut, and many others. (For an update on the Greenwich PO, check out this post and this article about the new post office opening in a spruced-up former pet store.)

Regarding these historic properties, the PAE simply says that if a historic structure is transferred to private ownership, “the Postal Service will ensure that the significant historic, architectural, and cultural values are preserved through measures such as protective covenants. Therefore, cumulative impacts to historic structures would be less than significant on a local and even on a national level” (p. 146).

There’s a lot more in the PAE to examine, and we’ll get to the rest in a subsequent post.  In the meantime, the game clock is ticking away — the moratorium ends May 15.  We’re told to expect “mass closures” of post offices, and it doesn’t look like the Postal Service is going to wait on the plant consolidations either.

It’s time for a full-court press.  It’s time for The People of the United States vs. The U. S. Postal Service.

(Photo credits: Processing facilities in historic buildings, slated for consolidation, in Amsterdam, NYPendleton, OR; and Hutchinson, KS;  Processing facility under study in Buffalo, NY; New Deal post offices in  Boone, NC and Maplewood, MO, both on the RAOI list; processing facility in Elko, NV; New Deal post office in Greenwich, CT, closed & for sale.)