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

Nov 14, 2013

Across the Northwest, thousands of people are crowding into meeting rooms to submit their comments on coal export and oil-by-rail projects.

Many of them wear T-shirts in protest or in support; they wait hours for a chance to speak for two or three minutes. The crowd isn't allowed to clap or cheer so they silently wave their hands or put their thumbs up if they agree with the people speaking.

Officials listen as people sound off one by one. What happens after that?

Vancouver resident Alona Steinke recently brought her concerns to a 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, Wash.

Steinke worked as a pediatric nurse for 41 years. She urged officials to conduct a health impact assessment. And she conveyed her concerns that coal dust and diesel emissions from the project's coal trains will impact youngsters' health.

"I cared for many children with asthma. I remember sadly a beautiful 14-year-old girl who died of asthma as we ran out of treatment options for her," Steinke said, listing the ill effects of coal dust to include inflammation, chronic congestion, bronchitis and more frequent asthma attacks.

Right now, three agencies – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Department of Ecology, and Cowlitz County – are asking the public which environmental impacts they should study before permitting begins on the Millennium coal export project in Longview, Wash.

Steinke's comment is one of more than 82,000 comments the agencies have collected on the issue so far.

There's a team of people tasked with reviewing all those comments for the state of Washington. But according to team lead Diane Butorac with the Washington Department of Ecology, there are simply too many comments for the agencies to sort through on their own.

So, they hired a consulting company, ICF International, to assist.

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

The consultants’ job is to highlight the key points in all those 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.

"Someone might send a letter, for example, that has five key points that they want to get across, but the letter might be three pages long," said Paula Ehlers, another team lead for the Department of Ecology. "To be the most efficient we can be, our consultant will pull out the five key points and issue areas, and we will review those. You get the substance of them so people don’t have to wade through three pages of verbiage 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 it's common for agencies to hire consultants to sort and organize comments on controversial projects. When his company is hired to do that work, all the comments that come in are coded and categorized by topic such as air quality or water quality. Then they're stored in an analysis file so they can be retrieved as needed.

(Read: Gateway Pacific Coal Export Report Summarizes 125,000 Public Comments)

"That way staff and decision-makers can see all the comments on water quality really quickly," he said.

Detailed comments from organizations might get sent directly to agency experts, Owens said, while other comments get summarized.

"It depends on the detail of comments, and how on target they are," he said. "I John Q Public who submit just an opinion, that will just be synthesized in a generalized report."

Sally Toteff, southwest regional director for the Washington Department of Ecology, says 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.

"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," Toteff said.

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?" she asks. "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.

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