For federal agencies, the primary law that drives public involvement for federal projects with regard to environmental issues is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. NEPA requires federal agencies to prepare an environmental analysis of the proposed action and alternatives, either in a Categorical Exclusion, an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). NEPA requires several opportunities for public participation during preparation of an EIS, and to a lesser degree for an EA. The purpose of a Public Involvement Plan is to ensure that the EA or EIS process is carried out in a transparent and informed manner and to demonstrate to the public that the federal agency is a full partner in environmental matters.
A Public Involvement Plan is important because it:
- Promotes an understanding of public and stakeholder involvement requirements and opportunities for better resourcing and scheduling;
- Specifies steps needed to meet legal responsibilities for comment opportunities of public members and stakeholders;
- Presents realistic time frames and responsible persons or offices for each step; and
- Identifies activities to maximize the quality of the information, ensures the information relates to planning actions in process, and incorporates any resultant feedback into future participation or planning processes.
1. When Are Public Involvement Plans Needed?
Public Involvement Plans are commonly developed for EISs, but sometimes they may be appropriate for some more complex EAs.
The preparation of an EIS requires legally mandated public comment and document review periods. There are also provisions to disseminate information about the proposed action while at the same time, actively identifying and addressing related community concerns. In addition to the general public, stakeholders must be identified and invited to participate, as well as regulators as appropriate.
Additionally, an EA may call for a Public Involvement Plan when the level of stakeholder issues and concerns need to be assessed and/or the proposed action may be viewed as controversial by the public.
There are a range of other laws and regulations that require public notices and participation during the planning phases of the proposed action activities and the EIS process. Although NEPA may address some of the topics and issues in the EIS, the federal agency must still satisfy the requirements of other federal and state laws and regulations. Such as those addressing historic properties or cultural resources, permits for wetland disturbance, air conformity determination, and others.
A Public Involvement Plan presents a comprehensive means of identifying legal requirements while enhancing community knowledge and participation in the planning for the proposed action.
2. What’s included in a Public Involvement Plan?
A Public Involvement Plan provides a framework for public engagement and dialogue during each phase (where appropriate) of the EIS and EA process and focuses on specific actions to be implemented during the following NEPA phases.
A Public Involvement Plan should include:
√ Regulatory requirements and any federal agency instructions for implementing NEPA.
√ The level and extent of anticipated public interest.
√ Local common practices regarding public participation.
√ The complexity of scope of the Proposed Action.
√ The magnitude of the environmental considerations associated with the Proposed Action and potential construction impacts on the surrounding community.
√ Any relevant questions of national security and classification.
√ Communication objectives, strategies and methods.
√ Notification and public review process.
√ Public involvement team.
A Public Involvement Plan includes material that initiates the development of public dissemination handouts and presentations, identifies advertising and meeting venues and includes communication strategies to assist in relating with the public. For example, which newspapers to publish public notices.
3. What Not to Include in a Public Involvement Plan?
A Public Involvement Plan should not include language and materials that:
- mislead the public,
- speculate about potential or probable analytical or scientific results,
- debate issues or organizational proposals, or
- state personal or organizational opinions about the proposed action, nor make promises or guarantees concerning the proposed action.
4. How Have Public Involvement Plans Changed as a Result of COVID-19?
We’ve seen a change in Public Involvement Plans since COVID-19 to include alternatives for in-person engagement. A Public Involvement Plan should include contingencies if in-person meetings are not available. For example, there can be a recorded video from the federal agency leadership explaining the project or Zoom meetings to allow for virtual public involvement. Social media posts are also great new avenues for reaching stakeholders.
5. What Are Scout’s Top Lessons Learned When Developing a Public Involvement Plan?
- Tailor the public involvement plan based on the community’s needs. Each proposed action and each community has its unique needs, perspectives, and character. For example, a proposed action that would significantly increase traffic in a quiet, primarily retired community might require public involvement that includes posting flyers at local retirement homes vs. only online social media notices.
- Learn from previous federal projects in the area and outreach efforts. The most effective public meetings are often open-house style with 5-7 posters that explain the proposed action and key environmental resource areas and subject matter experts posted at each station to answer questions. If there have been prior federal projects in the area, inquire what could be done to improve the open-house style format such as including a greeter to help guide attendees.
- Learn the lingo. A particular community may speak multiple languages and may be accustomed to having an elder speak at public meetings. Ensure the public involvement plan considers cultural needs and potential translator needs. And the best way to bring all cultures together is through food – offer refreshments and light snacks when possible as part of the public meeting (whether it’s included in the public involvement plan or not).
- Take a look at current events. Depending on current events with a particular federal agency, there may be more attention on a proposed action even though it may not be related to the current events. Consider whether your public involvement plan should include additional security at public meetings or include key talking points to anticipate any unrelated questions.
Contact us today to help you with your NEPA public outreach needs: firstname.lastname@example.org.