Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Public Notice and Review: Preliminary Findings

Research Questions:
Public Notice: An important part of the EIS process is agency, stakeholders, and public participation. The study is reviewing the present notification process.
  1. Are the agencies, stakeholders, and the public being adequately notified of environmental review opportunities under Chapter 343?
  2. Are there other actions that can be taken to improve the notification process?
Review of Draft Documents: An important feature of Chapter 343 is that documents are made available for comment and review by agencies and the public.
  1. Are agencies actively participating in reviewing draft and final environmental documents produced by other agencies and applicants?
  2. Are there ways to improve the interagency review process?
  3. Can the present system for comment and response be improved?
Stakeholder Interview Comments
Although opinions varied, the most common observation regarding public notice was that agencies and groups are adequately notified, but the general public is not. The public tends to find out about opportunities to participate too late in the process. Another common sentiment was that because of staffing and budget constraints, there are limits on how much public outreach agencies are able to do. Finally, many interviewees felt that notification is already sufficient for agencies, stakeholders, and the public, and that the current system generally works well.

For the interagency review processes, the favored response was that participation tends to vary by agency, and that budget and staffing constraints are factors that limit how much can be done. Often, there is not enough time to get through so many lengthy documents with short-staffed agencies and the limitation of the 30-day comment period. There are problems with some agencies' comments and responses lacking depth, where comments are boilerplate and responses inadequate.

Another problem that was frequently identified was “comment bombing.” This is when a project is controversial and the public and/or special interest groups send in hundreds or thousands of similar comments. According to the current system, each comment must be responded to individually and must also be published in the final document. For project proponents, these requirements seem unreasonable and burdensome.

To address concerns about public notice and review, the following actions were most commonly suggested:
  1. Public notice can be improved by better use of the internet and the OEQC website. In particular, it would be useful the create an email notification system whereby users can opt for notification of projects in areas of interest (by region or by type of project.)
  2. Public notice can be improved by increasing outreach. Some actions that might be taken include: posting signs on property, notifying neighbors via postcards or phone calls, holding community meeting, placing ads in the newspaper or on the radio, and more widely circulating the OEQC bulletin, including distributing it to public libraries.
  3. Public notice and the review process can both be improved by doing more pre-consultation and scoping.
  4. Public notice and the review process can both be improved by having more public and agency education about the process.
  5. Public notice can be improved by clearer guidance as to what is required. Better guidance could also help to make public notice processes more consistent.
  6. The review process can be improved by creating more incentives to review for agencies and university faculty.
  7. Public involvement in the process could be improved by lengthening the public review period, or by having some leniency toward extending it if necessary.
  8. The quality of comments might be improved by: better guidance as to the adequacy of responses, having a dedicated staff person in each agency to deal with comment and response, and creating an independent body of experts or government agency to conduct reviews.
Stakeholder Workshop Results
Session 1: Review of Results
The Stakeholder workshop helped to further clarify the information that came from the interviews. Workshop attendees agreed that there is room for improvement in the public notice and review processes. For public notice, the favored solutions were (1) better use of the Internet and website, (2) Having more public education about the process, and (3) more thorough pre-consultation and scoping. (This option – an improved scoping process - was also the most favored solution for improving review.) The workshop feedback for the review issue confirmed a general consensus that the quality of interagency review varies by agency and is somewhat inconsistent. The workshop feedback also confirmed that the incidence of “comment bombing,” is currently an issue. There was support for the idea that using the public comment period to try to delay or stop projects is a misuse of the system. (It is worth noting that the majority of support for this idea came from government agencies, consultants, and business groups and not from uh faculty, public interest groups or environmental groups.)

Session 2: Discussion Groups and Report Back
Discussion supported the findings of the stakeholder interviews and the first workshop session. The public is not involved enough. More public education would help the public to better understand the process and thus to be more involved. Better use of the Internet could help to provide public notice. In particular, groups and individuals should be able to sign up to receive notice for projects in areas of interest. Use of the Internet could also help to make the comment and response process more efficient. Accordingly, updated guidance is needed as to how to use electronic communications in the process. The discussion group also agreed that a more thorough scoping process (both with the public and agencies) would help to identify potential problems and issues in advance, thus reducing the need for the public, agencies and other reviewers to comment extensively. A suggestion was made that the scoping process should be more like NEPA, and that required scoping should be part of the state law. Finally, more flexibility in extending the review period is needed. 30 days should be a minimum, but there should be flexibility built in to the process to extend the date if needed. This will benefit both public involvement and agency ability to comment and respond to comments.

To address the “comment bombing” issue, the discussion group came to the conclusion that the requirement to respond individually to each comment should be changed. It should be allowable to clump together similar comments and respond to them together (as in NEPA). Although the group did not arrive at an ultimate solution, there was consensus that this issue is important and should be dealt with.

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