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Public participation: Making your comments count

Introduction

Most environmental rulemaking and permitting processes include a public comment period. The intent of these periods is to allow the voice of all stakeholders to be heard in the decision-making process. The challenge with making comments is to ensure those efforts are organized and supported in a way that makes them effective. This Fact File gives a detailed look at how to make your comments count when it comes to public input on regulatory and permitting actions.

Background

When government agencies take steps to adopt environmental regulations, prepare environmental assessments, or create new plans or programs, they have the potential to have unintentional and sometimes serious consequences. Entire ecosystems, species, communities, businesses, and even individuals can be affected by environmental actions. In most cases, the agencies leading these changes are required to notify the public of these proposals and allow the public to voice their concerns.

Comments provide the lead agency with additional facts and considerations that may not have been accounted for in the initial planning process. The goal is to help ensure that the decision-making process is comprehensive and there’s appropriate support for the action. Where the comment period falls during the process and how long the period must be open will vary depending on the law or regulation being met. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency is required to allow a minimum of 45 days for the public to comment on all National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) actions.

Comment preparation

Preparation is vital to providing well thought out and effective commentary to the agency. Start by reviewing the proposed document and any documents it may be replacing or negating. Read the new or revised document in its entirety, take detailed notes, and identify the overall intended impacts, as well as any ongoing themes.

Once you have an understanding of the document’s intentions, consider how it will impact your business and your community. The next step in your preparation is figuring out what you want to say and how you’re going to present it. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you attempting to stop the process, expand the scope of the action, support the action being proposed, or provide more information for a more informed decision? Make sure your objectives are clear and concise.

Writing a comment with impact

Once you have your objectives, lay out the main thoughts in a logical manner. The intention is to make strong points but, depending on the type of document and the proposal, there may be multiple routes to consider when writing your comments. Such as:

  • Law — what types of legal problems does the proposed environmental action have? Is a legal issue inadequately addressed or omitted entirely? Would the proposed action potentially violate the law? If a legal issue is identified, it is beneficial to cite the actual law in question.
  • Facts — how are the facts presented? Are they stated incorrectly, omitted, or not fully considered? By providing updated facts, the author may be provided with key information that was not previously considered.
  • Process – what is wrong with the process or people involved with it? Were required research steps, reports, or other technical information not fully completed? This is an opportunity to critique how the process is being handled.

When preparing your comments, use specific language to describe the problems identified as well as the type of change you are intending.

When possible, provide positive comments. Note the specific portions of the document you’re in favor of, include supplemental or supporting information, and provide helpful solutions.

Avoid basing comments on opinion or simply complaining. That input is less likely to be addressed by the lead agency.

Additional comment organization tips

  • Provide a table of contents to help the reviewer reference information quickly, especially if there are multiple concerns being addressed.
  • Use consistent headings and subheadings throughout your document. Choose a way to make them stand out and again, stay consistent.
  • Break multiple concerns into their own sections with the appropriate legal references, documentation, and proposed solutions. Be consistent in your formatting to make the comments more easily reviewed.
  • Summarize the information in a paragraph at the end.
  • Avoid lengthy paragraphs and use an active voice when writing.
  • Make your points as statements and verifiable data whenever possible. Use specific examples of the impacts and how they can affect you or the community.
  • Use good grammar, proper spelling, and punctuation, and respectful language throughout your comments.

Applicable laws & regulations

40 CFR 6.203 Public participation (NEPA)

40 CFR 124.10 Public notice of permit actions and public comment period (Clean Water Act)

40 CFR 71.11 Administrative record, public participation, and administrative review (Clean Air Act Federal Operating Permits)

40 CFR 70.7 Permit issuance, renewal, reopenings, and revisions (Clean Air Act State Operating Permits)

Plus, more at federal, state and local levels.

Related definitions

“Commenting” is a process that allows individuals, organizations, agencies, and businesses to provide written input on proposed environmental decisions.

Key to remember

Public commenting is encouraged and allowed for in most government actions. It’s important to have a well thought out and organized comment that can be presented in a logical manner to the proposing agency. Be specific in the problems identified and provide solutions whenever possible. A respectful tone and a well-documented comment have a much better chance of making change than one that attacks the proposal, regardless of the comment’s merit.

Real world example

Less impactful comment example: The property at the end of Jones Street has a colorful history and may have many artifacts.

More impactful comment example:

Under 40 CFR 6.301, EPA must take steps to preserve historic resources. The property at the end of Jones Street holds significant historical value to our community and multiple artifacts could still be on-site. We are requesting that before proceeding that the property be assessed with a historical survey along with preservation efforts items to protect any items of historical or cultural value.