" If you participate in a public hearing, the ultimate result is that a permit will be granted. If you choose not to participate in a public hearing, the ultimate result is that a permit will be granted."
~Speaker at US EPA training in Research Triangle Park
After just attending and speaking at the 20th, or 30th or 50th public hearing, ( full disclaimer I was taken out and arrested at one and boycotted another) I pondered upon what a public hearing really means, and why we participate in such a manipulative, disempowering, unfair, and seemingly useless process.
The Scene is Set; and fraught with tension: the hearing officer is at the front of the room, often positioned above the regular folks. Regulatory agency employees are scattered throughout the room, and depending on how contentious the issue is there might be state and local officials. The company will have their representatives in attendance, ready to jump in front of the camera.
People have spent hours poring over permit documents or proposed rules, sometimes having to read and re-read the complicated and unfamiliar language. Even for those used to reviewing such things, it isn't easy. Folks have taken time off work, gotten babysitters or brought their children, missed supper. Sometimes they have come a long way.
They have had to overcome their anxieties about speaking in public, their concerns that they don't understand the technical issues well enough, that they will say something wrong, be laughed at, be reprimanded or worse at work, or lose business.
The Hearing Starts: The hearing officer instructs those assembled that comments should be limited to technical or legal issues only- simply saying you don't want something doesn't count. Your comments are generally limited to no more than 5 minutes.
The public starts to comment- professionals weigh in also- maybe even a lawyer or two- the agency will pay attention to their concerns, right? Speakers are abruptly cut off by a buzzer, and if they continue to speak, by the hearing officer. If they continue, they could be escorted out of the hearing or worse.
The Hearing Ends: Folks go back to their homes and jobs, corporate representatives to their offices and regulatory staff to the safe confines of their agencies.
The Waiting Begins: Everyone is on edge, waiting to hear the decision that will impact them so profoundly. Will the agency do the right thing? Will they deny the permits, or make important modifications to make them stronger? Will they go back and look at the proposed rules to incorporate provisions which will better protect public health and the environment?
All is not lost! Friends, you may ask, why in the world would one participate in such an undemocratic process, where people who will have to live with an agency decision are so abused? There are many reasons, to get important issues on the record, have legal standing to appeal an agency decision, to make your case in the court of public opinion. That being said, I think it is way past time to start getting a little more proactive and creative with this process, and a little less predictable.
Hang on tight- its gonna be one heck of a ride...