I’ve been promising to provide  some insight on what public comments and public hearings are for.  While these ideas are  aimed for the present at the shale-watchers out there,  they have broad applicability to many environmental issues, especially those involving permits.

First, why do they “allow” public comments?  One simple (but not trite) answer is:  because public comments are a requirement.

And herein lies an initial teachable moment.  It is very important to make sure the requirements for this public input process are understood, and are being followed.  What is the exact legislation and/or regulations (state level here, at this point)  driving this process by the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)?  Are they following the requirements to a “T”?  If something is being left out, or not followed, what is it? Is the state also required to hold a public hearing at the end of the public comment period, as is often the case?

Of course, these requirements exist for good reasons.  The public usually has formal ways to provide input on such decisions.  The usefulness of this input depends on a number of factors, as I will discuss shortly.  But there are other reasons for public hearings that are often unspoken, and are beneath the surface.

One of these reasons  is that public comments (and public hearings) give those in charge a kind of “out,” if things head south later.  (As a southerner, I don’t take exception to this expression…here,  “head south” means “go to hell” or something similar.)  Basically, you can’t say you were not warned ahead of time.  People can’t just put their heads in the sand and hope for the best.

One of the problems with all this is  the public usually is not in a position to even know how to begin to evaluate such information as the draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) for drilling in the Marcellus shale.  What experts should be brought in.  Technical experts?  Legal experts?

Further, public comments and public hearings can provide a way for the public to blow off some steam and vent. It can feel good to get some things off one’s chest.  But just saying something doesn’t look or sound good or does not pass the smell test really does not accomplish anything.  What sorts of comments have teeth?  Stay tuned.