Public Engagement is Inadequate and Silencing
I am Kay Ferguson of ARTivism Virginia. Our work is to serve rural communities threatened by proposed new fossil fuel infrastructure. I am glad to be able to share with you what we have consistently found when we have arrived in those communities over the last 4 ½ years. Deers in the headlights. Folks who consistently find out about a permit when it is just about to be approved and who are scrambling not only to understand the health and environmental science of the proposed project but also to understand how to participate in your regulatory process. I have witnessed this scramble and its related difficulties in Union Hill, Charles City County, Norfolk, Bent Mountain and in other rural communities along the now cancelled Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the still active Mountain Valley Pipeline. Most recently our work with the Pittsylvania County NAACP has again revealed this deers in the headlights scrabble, panic and struggle.
So from my seat your public engagement is inadequate and often punishing and silencing and I am glad you are preparing to change that.
Many needed changes come to mind, among them: give notice to and engage with directly impacted communities when the project is first proposed and before formal application is filed and not when the permit is finished; give notice that actually reaches the community; institute forums where questions can be asked and answered by those wielding permit power; hold public hearings on permits in the directly impacted communities earlier in the process and with both in person and hybrid opportunities; hold public hearings when accessible to full time workers; give more advance notice of when public hearings will be held; allow citizens access to Citizen Boards that does not go through and is not edited by the DEQ, allow citizens to register to speak at public hearings in advance and in person day of; hold public hearings in public or citizen sponsored venues and not in private hotels. And yeah, don’t march armed police around the edges of hearing rooms while citizens are speaking. Come down off your dais and foster dialogue.
DEQ’s 2020 Environmental Justice Report from Skeo Consultants is a good resource as you seek better and more public engagement. I recommend it to you as a guide for future policy and action. Four of the nine action items recommended by the report outline and give vast resources for and examples of better public engagement.*
These are details and I don’t want to omit noting that at this point in our scientific history, these details are akin to standing together in a room with gasoline up to our ankles and arguing over how many more matches we are each going to get. There is no rational justification for any new fossil fuel infrastructure at this moment in our planet’s history.
I will close by questioning the legality of your declaration that mention of certain topics during your public forum are forbidden and noting that after I have worked with an impacted community for months, participated in all your rules for public comment, gotten up early and driven long distances - all to earn 3 minutes of your time, I will speak about any damn pending project or permit I please. And I assure you that if this comment is stricken from your public record because I say Lambert Compressor Station or MVP today, I will sue you to test the legality of this silencing.
*In brief those four action items re public engagement from the Skeo report are:
5. Accessible Information: Develop tools to provide more transparent, accessible and real-time environmental information to the public.
6. Relationship Building: Invest in proactively building productive relationships with environmental justice and other adversely impacted communities.
7. Community Engagement: Proactively and authentically engage communities on issues and decision-making that could potentially affect their health and quality of life.
8. Environmental Justice Community Capacity: Build the capacity of environmental justice communities to participate meaningfully in environmental decision-making.
Here is the link to the Skeo report: https://www.deq.virginia.gov/home/showdocument?id=8624
Kay Ferguson, ARTivism Virginia
1050 Broomley Road
Charlottesville, VA 22901