How Officials Manage To Review 200,000 Comments On Coal Exports

Nov 15, 2013

Across the Northwest, thousands of people are weighing in on controversial new fossil fuel projects. Agencies have collected more than 200,000 public comments on coal export and oil-by-rail proposals. What happens to all those comments? EarthFix reporter Cassandra Profita goes behind the scenes of a coal export project in Longview to find out.

A scene from a Millennium coal export public comment meeting.
Credit Cassandra Profita

People attending public comment sessions on coal export and oil-by-rail projects often hear a warning something like this.

“I have to ask folks again that we not have the clapping and the audible approval or disapproval.”

Hundreds of people will be packed into a room – many of them wearing T-shirts in protest or in support. They get two or three minutes to speak, and the crowd can wiggle their fingers or give thumbs up if they agree.

“Our next speaker is David Goldberg. He'll be followed by Linda Garcia and then Dave Seabrook.”

Officials listen for hours as people sound off. But what do they do with all those comments? Comments like this:

“My name is Alona Steinke. I worked as an RN for 41 years.”

Vancouver resident Alona Steinke is reciting the two-page comment she read aloud at a recent public meeting on the Millennium Bulk Terminals coal export project.

The project would export 44 million tons of coal to Asia through a terminal in Longview. Steinke is worried about how the coal dust and diesel emissions from the project's coal trains will impact people’s health.

“I urge you to do a health impact assessment.”

Three agencies are asking the public which environmental impacts they should study before permitting begins on the Millennium project.

Steinke was one of more than a thousand people who made comments this fall at public meetings. Thousands of others submitted written comments.

Toteff: How many comments do we have right now, Diane, Elaine?

Sally Toteff is a regional director for the Washington Department of Ecology.

Butorac: “I think we’re up to 82,000.
Placido: "Maybe closer to 83,000.”

She’s on the phone with Ecology planners Diane Butorac and Paula Ehlers and Cowlitz County planner Elaine Placido. They’re all part of a team charged with reviewing more than 82,000 comments on the Millennium project.

They say there are just too many comments for the agencies to sort through on their own. So, Butorac explains, they hired a consulting company, ICF International, to assist.

"The consultants are really helping us to be as effective as possible. With so many comments coming in, it just makes sense."

The consultants’ job is to highlight the key points in everyone’s comments. They sort the duplicate form letters from the individual appeals made by people like Steinke. And they read through the long letters to find the issues that need attention. That way, officials don’t have to read every single word.

As Ehlers explains: “You get the substance of them so people don’t have to wade through three pages of verbage because it is a daunting task.”

Journalists aren’t allowed to talk with ICF International about its role in the review. But Jim Owens does the same kind of work with the consulting company Cogen Owens Cogen in Portland. He says all the comments are coded and stored so they can be retrieved as needed.

"Think of a big cardboard box where you collect all your past utility bills. It would be analogous to that."

The most detailed comments from organizations might get sent directly to agency experts.

"I John Q Public who submit just an opinion, that will just be synthesized in a generalized report."

It doesn't matter how many people say they like the project or hate it. Or how many people are worried about the health impacts of coal dust. If 100 people make the same request as Steinke, they all boil down to one item on a list of concerns.

As Ecology official Sally Toteff explains: "The bottom line for us is that it’s not a popularity contest about who says the same thing however many times repeated and repeated."

Alona Steinke says she hopes nothing gets overlooked as the comments are reviewed. In the end, she wants to know that her comment made a difference.

"Will it be transparent so we can see what's going on? Will we know that we have been heard?"

The public comment period for the Millennium project ends Nov. 18.

If people like Steinke want to know whether their comments made a difference, they can read the agencies' environmental review. Officials say they don’t know when that will be released. But when it is, there will be another chance for the public to comment.