Michigan Advance: Rep. Tlaib and environmental groups demand changes to EGLE’s public participation process 

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) and a coalition of community groups are demanding that the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) improve its public participation process so that residents’ concerns are taken into account before decisions are made in the environmental permitting process. 

Tlaib, along with members of groups, including the Clear the Air Coalition and Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, held a virtual press conference Thursday to discuss what steps they believe EGLE should take to better engage with the community. Speakers agreed that EGLE should inform the public about permit details much sooner.

The press conference was held ahead of EGLE’s Monday deadline for the public to provide input on the updated draft versions of its Public Participation Policy and its Language Access Plan. According to a release from EGLE, all comments received from the public will be considered and reviewed before the publication and release of the final policy and plan. 

“We’re here because, while it seems common sense that the agency charged with protecting people’s health would and should care about what those people have to say, that’s not currently the case,” Kim Hunter from the Clear the Air Coalition said. “We’re here because, when it comes to key decisions about our environment and how corporations can operate in our communities, EGLE’s public interaction process is skewed to favor polluters, and that must change.”

Residents who attend EGLE hearings to give public comment during the permitting process feel that the hearings are “performative,” Tlaib said. She said it’s “unacceptable” that the public is brought in at the end of the process, when they have “almost no power” to change EGLE’s decisions. 

“A corporate polluter has a huge head start with months of back and forth with EGLE, and we have to rebalance the scales and make public participation and community input actually matter,” Tlaib said.

The frustration that residents feel with EGLE’s current process has “major consequences,” said Tlaib. She said the process disempowers residents and discourages them from participating in the future.

“My residents live with the impacts of these decisions, so they should be able to help make them, not be brought in to vent their concerns after a decision is as good as made,” she said.

Amy Schulz, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, said a recent study has found that those who have engaged in a public participation process that didn’t offer opportunities to influence environmental decisions experienced a loss of trust in government institutions. 

“There is a growing body of science that details the harms that are caused when government entities fail to provide meaningful mechanisms for taxpayers, property owners and residents affected by environmental decisions to inform and influence those decisions,” Schulz said. “In other words, public participation that is performative, that does not offer meaningful opportunities to the decisions that are made, is harmful to public health and erodes trust in government regulatory bodies such as EGLE.”

Theresa Landrum, a Southwest Detroit resident, said she has attended hundreds of hearings over the years to voice her concerns. She said it has been a challenge for her and others to understand the permitting process and the hundreds of pages of documents that have “highly technical, legal and scientific jargon.” 

Landrum said there’s also many residents who need these documents translated in order to review them. 

“We need for the documents to be put in simple, plain language so that we can understand,” she said. 

According to the draft of EGLE’s Language Access Plan, the department will take “reasonable steps to ensure that vital documents are translated or interpreted” for individuals affected who do not speak English as their primary language.

Landrum said she and other residents have suggested that EGLE hold webinars or tutorials to help break down long reports. That way, they can better understand what’s outlined in the permits and can make valid comments about them. 

According to the EGLE Public Participation Policy draft, EGLE will “facilitate public understanding of the process, including notice of pending decisions, the factors that EGLE considers in reaching a decision, the technical information that EGLE considers in the decision-making process, and the basis of a decision when it is made.”

Nick Leonard from the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center said he has spent “more hours than I can count” in public hearings. He said EGLE often urges commenters to limit the scope of their comments, which has made community members feel like they aren’t heard.

“If they’re serious about their commitment to make Michigan a leader in promoting environmental justice, they have to do a lot more than what’s provided in their current draft of their public participation policy,” Leonard said. “Michigan’s environmental laws and regulations exist to protect us — the health of people — not to ensure that industry receives timely service for their permits to pollute.”

Leonard said it seems that EGLE doesn’t try to engage with the public at all when one of their decisions is considered controversial.

“When EGLE sought EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] permission to ignore high ozone days on the east side of Detroit in 2022, they never once came to Detroit for a single public hearing or public meeting,” he said.

Public comment periods are “an essential component of transparent and equitable public participation, allowing the agency to gather input from the community and affected parties before making final decisions on agency actions,” the draft of the EGLE Public Participation Policy says.

EGLE will review all written and verbal comments received after the public comment period and will communicate how those comments were considered in the process, the draft said. 

Simone Sagovac from the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition said that the public deserves to know whether or not companies have followed regulations before they’re granted another permit. She also believes EGLE should restore in-person public meetings.

“It isn’t a fair process or a good process without a fair playing field to start,” Sagovac said. “EGLE engages with companies from the start when a permit application is submitted, but the affected community doesn’t learn about the permit details until the very end of the process when the public hearings are held. We need information sooner and EGLE needs to hear from the affected community sooner.” 

According to the Public Participation Policy draft, meetings should be in a convenient location for community members, such as libraries, schools and community centers. If meetings are held online, the meetings must offer an option for the public to participate.

Some of the different types of meetings outlined in the draft include informational meetings, open houses, listening sessions and public hearings.

In the draft, EGLE said it’s committed to continuous improvement of public participation. They will establish a “cross-division/cross-office public participation working group” to ensure implementation of the policy across all activities.

“This policy serves as a guide for the department to engage in public participation and will be regularly revisited to ensure it stays current,” the draft says.

You can read the full article here

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