S.D. Congressional delegation united: VA should stay in Hot Springs | TSLN.com

S.D. Congressional delegation united: VA should stay in Hot Springs

Senators Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), and Representative Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) sent a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Eric Shinseki expressing disappointment that the Secretary is proceeding on the path to potential realignment of the VA Black Hills Health Care System (BHHCS). The delegation continues to believe that the Domiciliary and Medical Center should remain in Hot Springs. The letter also calls on the Secretary to ensure the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the BHHCS does not start with a pre-determined outcome.

The delegation writes: "As the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) undertakes this process, it is absolutely imperative that the EIS be conducted thoroughly and consistent with the law. From the beginning, it is critical that those involved realize that the EIS does not start with a pre-determined outcome. The VA must, as required by law, fully consider alternatives (including a no action alternative), duly consider public comment, and assess the social, economic, and environmental impacts."

The text of the letter is below:

January 16, 2014

The Honorable Eric Shinseki

Secretary of Veterans Affairs

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Department of Veterans Affairs

810 Vermont Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20420

Dear Secretary Shinseki:

Thank you for taking the time to brief us last week on your decision to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for the VA Black Hills Health Care System (BHHCS). We are disappointed that you are proceeding on the path to potential realignment and continue to believe the Domiciliary and Medical Center should remain in Hot Springs. Nevertheless, we appreciate your personal interest in this matter and commitment to our nation's veterans.

As the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) undertakes this process, it is absolutely imperative that the EIS be conducted thoroughly and consistent with the law. From the beginning, it is critical that those involved realize that the EIS does not start with a pre-determined outcome. The VA must, as required by law, fully consider alternatives (including a no action alternative), duly consider public comment, and assess the social, economic, and environmental impacts. It is our understanding the VA plans to incorporate National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) Section 106 consultation requirements into the NEPA EIS process, as permitted under 36 CFR 800.8(c). The South Dakota State Historical Society and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have shared concerns with the VA about combining these two processes. We ask that you take those concerns seriously and ensure that the requirements of Section 106 are fully met and proper consideration is given to the historic buildings. One way to achieve this is by choosing a contractor with extensive experience and knowledge in this area. Conducting an EIS of this scale is a large undertaking, and it's important the VA selects a contractor that is capable of handling the task. Will you keep us informed as a contractor is chosen and a timeline for steps in the NEPA process is established?

While the VA undertakes the NEPA process, we fully expect the level of care and services currently provided in Hot Springs will be maintained. Do we have your assurance that veterans in the BHHCS will not see any degradation of services in Hot Springs during this period?

As you know, we are concerned that the condition of the Hot Springs campus is due in part to management decisions that have weakened its viability as a provider of care for veterans. In addition to your reassurance that the Hot Springs campus will not experience any further degradation during the NEPA process, we ask that the VA provide an explanation for why the Compensated Work Therapy program that was originally approved for Hot Springs by the VA Office of Construction and Facilities Management was instead relocated to Walla Walla, Washington. A decision such as this signals to veterans and stakeholders that the VA has all but abandoned the future of the Hot Springs campus before it initiates the EIS.

We will be following the NEPA process very closely and anticipate robust participation from veterans, local residents, and other stakeholders. We appreciate being kept apprised of ongoing developments, actions and decisions as this process moves forward.

Sincerely,

TIM JOHNSON JOHN THUNE KRISTI NOEM

United States Senator United States Senator Member of Congress

–Senator Johnson