One of the primary ways government affects our environment is through their review of pollution permits and the writing and enforcement of regulations. When permits or regulations are up for review, government agencies often seek public input by holding “public comment periods.” A public comment period is a length of time during which a government agency will accept feedback and input in the form of written comments and testimony from the public about a proposed permit or regulation. Different government agencies may set different lengths of time for the public comment period. Part 1 details how to get information on notices for public comment. Also, the public comment period establishes a record that you can later use to challenge an unfavorable decision. If considering litigation, it is beneficial and sometimes necessary to submit a public comment to establish standing. Litigation is further addressed in Part 5.
A. Comment Letters to Government Agencies
The public notice usually states a deadline to receive comments. Public comments submitted before the deadline go into the administrative record. Late comments, although otherwise perfect, may become irrelevant if submitted after the deadline passes. In one recent case, an agency refused to consider comments that were 25 seconds late. Furthermore, some courts have decided that if concerned residents do not raise a particular issue during the comment period, then the particular issue cannot be used to challenge the agency’s final decision on the permit or the rule. Therefore, preserve your issue by submitting a comment before the deadline. Carefully note whether the deadline specifies if your comments needs to be “sent” or “received”by the deadline. Some agencies will accept public comments by e-mail or fax, but check with the agency before relying on that method of delivery. If you do e-mail your comments, it is best to send a follow-up copy by mail.
Even before the publication of a comment period for a permit, you are entitled to request a copy of the permit application from the agency or download a copy on the agency’s electronic data management system, if any.
Note that DNR often requires comments to be submitted by a particular time of day, usually 4:30 pm.
As hard as you might try, sometimes you do not have enough time to prepare your comments or you may want to encourage others to support your cause. If so, ask the agency for an extension. It’s a good idea to ask for any extension early in the public comment period because the agency may not honor a last-minute request. In your request, make sure to give the agency reasons you need the extension. Showing there is a local interest in the issue may help persuade the agency that the time extension is justified. If possible, have a local elected official request the time extension. In general, you can request the extension by phone, letter, or in person at a public hearing. Regardless of the method, always get written confirmation of the extension.
Make sure that you plan for all deadlines that may apply to opportunities to influence the decision. For instance, if you are working on a written public comment to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about a Clean Air Act Title V air permit application, you may have an opportunity to petition EPA to object to that permit. There will probably be separate deadlines for commenting to DNR and submitting a petition to EPA. The deadline for filing the petition begins to run on the date of the EPA’s receipt of the proposed permit.
Normally, EPA Region 7 posts the dates it receives such permits (“EPA Review Start Date”) on its web page, along with the petition deadline.
If you have questions about a particular deadline, state or federal, contact the permitting agency for clarification. You can usually find the name of the contact person with information about the proposed action on the public notice.
After you submit a comment, there are different methods and regulations regarding how to receive notice of a final decision. DNR notifies any person or organization submitting comments, but not all government agencies may do this. Instead, as a member of the public, you might have to call the agency or check its website.
To request notice of a final decision in response to a verbal comment made at a hearing be sure to leave your contact information on the sign in sheet if there is one. You may have to follow up by phone or in writing to ensure you get a response back.
Do not be intimidated about submitting public comments. As a potentially affected neighbor, you are uniquely qualified to speak about your experience and concerns about industrial activities in your area.
There is no right or wrong way to write comments, nor do they have to be perfect. A comment can vary in length — it can be as short as a couple paragraphs or as long as a multi-page technical report. Comments may include facts, opinions, questions, and supporting documents. You can raise as many issues as you’d like – fact-based and legal. It is a good idea to attach supporting material if you have it, so that your support becomes part of the agency record.
The only hard and fast rules are to submit comments by the deadline and to avoid rude language and insults to the agency that will be making the decision.
When drafting a written comment, we suggest focusing on two primary goals. First, convince the agency to do the right thing now, before a final decision has been made on the permit or rule. Second − in case the agency fails to do the right thing − use your comments to preserve your arguments for a potential appeal or petition to veto the agency’s decision. This includes making and supporting factual assertions, telling the agency exactly what you want it to do, and responding to your opponents’ points.
The following is a checklist of information and topics to include in your comments.
- Your name and address
- Name of group you are speaking on behalf of (if relevant)
- A statement explaining why you are interested or concerned, and how the proposed action might affect your interests.
- Name, address and location of permit applicant, facility or activity (refer to the public notice) or regulation number
- Any permit identification or reference number (refer to the public notice)
- Any other information required by the public notice
- A statement of what you want the agency to do regarding the proposed action
- For example, deny the permit, prepare an environmental impact statement, hold a public hearing locally, change the rule, etc.
- Support, reject, or amend a regulation
- Note: you can have multiple requests
- A request that the agency notify you in writing of the permit decision.
- Note: This is not applicable to rules. Instead, you have to keep checking the daily register for notice of the final rule. Refer to Part 1 for information about signing up for listservs.
- Date and Sign your comment
MAYBE bring up the following issues in your comment, especially if it is relevant:
- How will the aesthetics of the area considered for the project or rule be affected?
- What will be the impacts on air quality after the permit is granted or the rule goes into effect?
- Are there alternative methods or locations to conduct the activity?
- Do the economics of the activity make sense?
- Will the project harm endangered or threatened species?
- Will the proposed activity destroy important habitat?
- For federal actions, has an environmental impact statement been performed?
- Are there environmental justice issues involved? For example, will a particular community of people be disproportionately harmed?
- Are there historical or archeological sites that will be harmed by the proposed activity?
- Has the agency considered the applicant’s history of violations?
- Will groundwater, drinking or surface waters be threatened by the project or new rule?
- Will the activity lead to land or soil contamination?
- Are there legal reasons why this rule or permit must be denied?
- Are there problems with the proposed location?
- Has the agency considered the long-term effects?
- Will exposure to radiation be a likely result from the activity?
- What will be required to ensure safe operation?
- Have the risks in transporting substances to and from the facility been considered?
- How will the aesthetics of the area considered for the project or rule be affected?
MAYBE include the following attachments to support your position:
- Photographs and/or videotapes
- Maps, charts, tables, graphs
- Copies of enforcement actions against the applicant
- Technical or scientific articles
- Government reports
- Signed and dated statements from former employees of the applicant or from others with special knowledge of problems with the facility.
The following template is from the Public Comment Project, and is a general example for what comments can look like. Remember, comments vary in length and can range from short summaries to long and technical comments. If your comments are lengthy you may wish to submit a cover letter, but it’s not necessary and the content of your comments can be included in the letter. MCE generally sends a cover letter with all federal comment letters.
Re: [Docket ID, Document Title]
To Whom It May Concern,
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on [Document Title]. I am… 1-2 sentences introducing yourself and your credentials, as they relate to the comment you are writing.
I would like to… [raise concerns / inform you of new information / provide supporting evidence] regarding [Document Title]:
- [1 sentence describing first major point]
- [1 sentence describing second major point]
In summary, [1-2 sentences summarizing your comment]. Please see below for additional details and pertinent literature.
[Affiliations, Degree, Additional Qualifications]
Main Comment Text
[First major point]
Several short paragraphs supporting your first point. Include references to literature that is cited in the bibliography.
[Second major point]
Several short paragraphs supporting your second point. Include references to literature that is cited in the bibliography.
List of your sources; include links or DOI when appropriate.
The following example is a public comment submitted to Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources and Clean Water Commission by MCE regarding the renewal of a MO State Operating Permit. This comment refers to information gathered through a Sunshine Request to explain past permit violations and explain environmental concerns with the proposed permit renewal.
Here is a link to MCE’s comment letter template to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service regarding the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Interim Final Rule from February 2020. This comment letter is less technical than the one above, and allows space for commenters to include their personal stories and reasons for making changes to this program.