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WATERLINE - March, 2016

Let your voice be heard on issues important to you!

How and why to submit public comments

By Melissa Malott, Citizens for a Healthy Bay
An overflow crowd packed rooms inside Tacoma's convention center

Crowds filled rooms inside Tacoma’s convention center to comment on a proposed methanol refinery.
(Photo: KING)

On February 10, 2016, there was a public hearing in Tacoma on a proposed methanol refinery. The hearing was an early step in the decision-making process for this project, and the subject at hand was how broad the scope of environmental review should be. Late in the evening, a woman named Jori got up to speak. She said she was not sure exactly how to explain the issue she wanted reviewed, but that she wanted the city to consider how the larger public perception of Tacoma would change with the refinery. Jori’s comment took the conversation beyond the jobs vs. environment arguments that always seem to define these discussions. Her comment moved the crowd because it brought in concepts like community identity and cultural connections in a way that finally articulated the collective “ugh” expressed when people in Tacoma speak of this project.

As bureaucratic as the term “public comment hearing” sounds, there can be moments during these hearings that sing and inspire others. Because of these beautiful moments, I encourage people to voice their thoughts in public comment sessions. There is also a much more functional reason to submit public comments. Jori’s comment was unique and relevant, and was exactly what city staff needed to hear to shape the scope of their review for the proposed project. Her comment added a thoughtful new dimension to the range of issues city decision makers should consider as this project moves forward.

Sometimes, people find the idea of public testimony intimidating: they don’t know what to say, they are nervous about the process, they don’t know where to sign up, etc. Truly, public speaking is nerve-wracking – and when you’re nervous, you’re more likely to keep quiet. But public comments are important.

The power of public comments

Submitting public comments is one of the best ways people can influence the outcome of decisions about siting a refinery, coal terminal, or other potentially devastating project. While the public can use various tactics to influence change — petitions, letters to the editor, public demonstrations, and more — these actions can only influence politics. However, unless the chosen tactic does, in fact, influence politics and build momentum, it won’t necessarily bring change.

Public comments, on the other hand, trigger government action. Under many national and state environmental laws, and specifically under Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), the government agency reviewing the proposed project is required to consider public comments and must either align the proposed action with the public comment, consider alternatives the agency had not previously considered, or explain why they are not doing so. For the actual language of the rule, see WA Administrative Code 197-11-560. Triggering action is critical in the decision-making process; it means that the agency staff must incorporate the comment, or explain why they are not doing so in a way that will survive public and possibly judicial scrutiny.

Additionally, public comments are useful because they often offer agency staff a perspective they have not previously considered. Sometimes public comments can affect agency politics and allow staff quietly in agreement with you to take more time with, modify, or in some cases, kill a project.

So how do you do it?

There are three components to submitting public comments: understanding the process your comments will be part of, developing your comments, and submitting your comments. It’s important to understand the basic process so you can submit your comments on time and on point. The official, agency-issued notice must include fundamental information about the comment process, including the topic, the start and end dates of the comment period, and lead agency contact information. Usually, these notices also contain briefing and background information and resources. You can find the notice on agency websites, local newspapers, and, depending on the law that governs the process, a government registry. For example, the Department of Ecology keeps an online, searchable registry for all Washington State Environmental Policy Act documents.

To develop your comments, focus on two things: your credibility and the framing of your concerns. Your credibility is established as either a community member or an expert; assuming you are not an expert, introduce yourself in a way that shows you live in the community and speaks to your actions in the community, like raising children, recreating, etc. If you are an expert, make clear your expertise and your qualifications for speaking on the topic of your comments.

To frame your concerns, identify how the agency will use public comment, and frame your concerns accordingly. For example, with the ongoing SEPA scoping process for the methanol refinery, the City of Tacoma is required to identify the “probable significant adverse impacts (of) and reasonable alternatives (to)” the methanol refinery. So, as the public develops comments on the water usage of the proposed refinery, they should identify the issues they would like the City of Tacoma to analyze as probable, significant, adverse impacts. The identified issues can include environmental concerns like water and air quantity and quality, and specific sub-issues within these topics, like diesel exhaust and passenger vehicle emissions, as well as built environment issues like traffic problems. Whether you are commenting on a SEPA process or environmental permit, local or state environmental organizations can often help with ideas or a structure for your comment letter.

Your comments can be submitted as a letter via electronic or conventional mail or as oral testimony in person. If you plan to submit oral comments at a hearing, write the testimony out and practice completing it within the time limit you will have at the hearing (often, three minutes). If you show up early for the hearing and sign up to speak right away, you may not have to wait as long to speak. To make sure agency staff fully hear all of your points, write your testimony in a letter to submit with your oral testimony. If you are submitting comments in writing, via email or conventional mail, follow the instructions provided in the public notice, and make sure you submit by the deadline.

Again, public comments are an effective advocacy tool for the public because they trigger agency action. For further resources, contact Citizens for a Healthy Bay or the local or state environmental group working on your issue of concern. Happy advocating!

Melissa Malott, J.D. is the executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Bay, a non-profit in Tacoma, WA dedicated to engaging people in the cleanup, restoration, and protection of Commencement Bay and surrounding waters.


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Let your voice be heard on issues important to you!


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