This chapter outlines the importance and purpose of the public commenting process; provides an overview of different types of public comments you may submit; and walks through step-by-step instructions for writing effective public comments and staying involved in the process.
Public Comment Overview
Government agencies are in charge of developing and enforcing the rules that affect our everyday lives. One of the most important aspects of their rulemaking process is that they are often required to provide the public with an opportunity to participate. Your feedback on government regulations is a necessary and vital part of our democracy and gives you a chance to tell the government your opinion!
What is a public comment?
When federal agencies implement laws passed by Congress, they do so by creating rules and regulations. These rules and regulations go through several stages, and agencies must first file regulations as proposals in the Federal Register (a publication containing all federal regulations).
Agencies are then typically required to accept comments on their proposal from all members of the public, and they are required to respond to those comments. Agencies also solicit public comments on other types of decisions besides new regulations, such as issuing certain permits, and when conducting some kinds of environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). For more about NEPA, see National Environmental Policy Act.
Public comments are a powerful way for you and your community to share your thoughts, concerns, and priorities with a government agency. To be effective, these comments should be:
Directly applied to the proposed rule, regulation, permit, or project that the government is considering
In general, all public comments must be read and acknowledged by the agency, but government agencies can produce one response that addresses several related comments together.
Summary: Public Comment Contents
Public Comments Are:
Public Comments Are Not:
An opportunity to educate the agency with information that is relevant to the rules or actions proposed in the regulation,
from public input on community impacts to scientific research.
A space to share personal views or objections against an agency broadly, outside the context of a specific project.
A way to provide constructive solutions and recommendations to an agency. Make sure to include any knowledge,
experience, or evidence that helps back up your observations and comments,
and make sure to clearly tell the agency what you think they should do.
A space to include sensitive, personally identifiable, or confidential information. Remember that your comment will be publicly viewable by anyone.
A space to identify potential violations of the law or serious community concerns about the impact that
a specific proposal, regulation or permit might have.
A place to call out specific individuals by name or to present only conclusions about an agency’s officials or their past actions.
Who can make a public comment?
Because public comments are an important part of our democracy and the rulemaking process, all people, not just lawmakers or government officials, can participate in this process. The law protects your right to participate in the decision-making process and encourages everyone to submit relevant and specific feedback to help improve the rules, permits, and regulations proposed by our government.
For this reason, any person, group, or organization, as well as other government agencies can submit a public comment. Comments can be submitted anonymously or prepared on behalf of another person, organization, group, or federal agency.
Why are public comments so important?
Public comments are a very important part of the law-making process because they offer normal people like you and me (the “public”) the opportunity to actively participate in the creation of the rules and regulations that impact our everyday lives.
Public comments can provide lawmakers with a perspective that they may not have considered when they were writing a specific regulation.
The people who draft laws are not all-knowing. Using your comments to illustrate the specific ways in which a proposal might impact your particular community can lead to changes in the proposal for the better.
When it comes to the environment, public comments are a powerful tool for providing a government agency with facts and perspectives that might not have been considered in its original proposal. Remember to clearly tell the agency what you think they should do. Comments are not a vote – the agency will not add up the comments in favor and comments opposed and then act with the majority – but your comments can help an agency create a better, more informed proposal that addresses the public’s concerns.
When do public comments take place?
The timeline for submitting a public comment can change depending on the number of comments an agency receives or expects to receive, the size of the regulation being discussed, or the complexity of the proposal. For this reason, the process below is simply meant to provide a general idea of what this process might look like.
If you are considering submitting comments on a specific rule, proposal, or permit, contact the agency receiving the comments and ask what the applicable deadline is.
As a community advocate, you can request that an agency allow for more time for you to submit comments, and agencies may even consider comments that were filed late if there is a good reason for the delay. That said, you should be aware that government agencies are generally not required to consider comments that are filed late. Agencies will usually provide specific information in their proposal laying out the comment period and explaining whether they will consider comments that are filed late.
Federal Agency Public Comments – General Timeline
An agency will first publish any proposed regulations, amendments, or changes to a law in the Federal Register as well as on its official website.
There is normally a 60-day period that starts right after the publication for public commenting. This period is called the notice and commenting period.
This is the time in which you and your community can submit your feedback!
The public comment period is typically followed by a 30-day reply period. This is the time when the agency is required to respond to the comments that were submitted during the 60-day period. Public comments can still be submitted during this time, but agencies are not required to respond to these comments.
After the agency has considered and responded to the public comments, it will typically publish its final regulation which will include its response to the public comments.
Agencies are typically required to also explain their responses to these comments.
Types of Public Comments
An agency’s work does not consist only of rulemaking. Agencies sometimes recommend legislation to Congress and even help draft laws. Some other functions of government agencies can include deciding administrative legal cases, issuing orders, or even imposing penalties. For this reason, it is very important to know what kind of agency action you are dealing with when you choose to submit a public comment.
Rulemaking comments are often considered the most common type of public comments. Because environmental laws are very broad, the agencies enforcing these laws are required to create specific rules to carry out their overall plan.
Many – but not all – federal agencies publish their proposals online. On regulations.gov, you can see a list of proposals with upcoming comment deadlines, as well as those which have just been published for comment. You can search for any proposals that might be relevant to your community, or you can browse the proposals available for comment. On any list of results, you can select a specific agency (like EPA) from the list on the left-hand side of your screen. You can also submit comments on any proposed rules through this site.
Proposed Georgia EPD rules are available online. This site is easier to use than regulations.gov: it lists all of the proposed EPD rules, the dates of public hearings, and the deadlines for public comments. Click on any rule to see a list of documents about that proposal. Deadlines and instructions for submitting comments are usually included in the “notice” of the proposal, so make sure to read that document to see how EPD wants you to submit comments.
You can also get proposed rules mailed to you by adding your name to the EPD Environet database by calling 888-373-5947, or emailed to you by registering on the EPD Proposed Rules site. The site also provides information on public hearings to be held on proposals.
Another process that benefits from public participation is the environmental permitting process. An environmental permit is a legal document that establishes the rules and conditions that a specific business must follow when doing things that impact the environment, like discharging pollution into air or water. These permits can focus on the type and quantity of a specific pollutant that a business is allowed to discharge, the reporting requirements it should follow, or when and where it must take samples to show that it is following the law.
A permit is not just a license that allows a business to pollute, it is a tool used by government agencies to determine how businesses should operate and to require them to comply with their environmental obligations. As a community member, you can play an important part in the environmental permitting process.
When an agency receives an application for an environmental permit it will either deny the application or will start to draft a permit. As part of the drafting process, the agency will typically notify the public of its decision and will often provide an opportunity for public comment. This is your opportunity to determine the potential threats or adverse effects that a specific permit would have on your community.
It is important to note that many of these permits are very technical, and the public can request a less technical summary of the proposed permitting requirements, which the agency may offer as additional clarification. Remember, environmental organizations in your community might be a great resource to help interpret the permit language and figure out what issues might be presented.
In 2014, the EPD introduced a new online portal for permitting decisions called GEOS. This portal is free (but requires registration) and will allow you and your community to participate in obtaining public notices, provide comments on draft permits proposed by the EPD, investigate environmental permits, and submit complaints. You can access GEOS through the EPD’s website. The EPD also offers a full community guide on how to use the system effectively.
Enforcement Decision Comments
Another type of public comment is related to an agency’s enforcement decisions. When someone violates environmental law or the terms of a permit, the EPD can take action to require them to obey the law and pay penalties. Typically, the EPD will first notify the wrongdoer that it has violated the law through a Notice of Violation or a formal letter.
If the EPD believes that the violations are sufficiently serious, it can issue a Consent Order. A Consent Order is an agreement between the EPD and the wrongdoer to address their illegal activities. A typical consent order will include a statement describing the violations, the plans to fix the problem, and the penalties that must be paid to the State. As an individual or community, you can let the EPD know whether the Consent Order correctly addresses all the relevant issues by commenting.
You can find proposed Consent Orders on the EPD’s website. You can also get the EPD to send all proposed Consent Orders directly to you for $50 a year. To join the mailing list simply call the EPD at (404) 657-5947 or, if you are located inside Georgia but outside the Atlanta calling area, at (888) 373-5947.
As with other public comments, be thoughtful. Consent Orders have a few unique considerations, as well.
Questions you should address include:
Will the Consent Order actually fix the problem?
Is the fine adequate? Is it enough to deter the polluter from violating the law again?
Has the community been involved? Will the Consent Order address the community’s concerns?
Is it just one more in a long series of Consent Orders? (Does this polluter have a pattern of breaking the law, signing a Consent Order, and then breaking the law again?)
Any comments must be mailed to the address indicated on the proposed Consent Order. As always, be sure to comply with stated deadlines for submitting comments. If you have any questions about how or when to submit comments, you can call or email the EPD contact person listed on the proposed Consent Order.
Finally, we arrive at public commenting on local lawmaking issues. Most states do not expressly require that government meetings provide time for the public’s participation. However, it has become a common practice in many cities, counties, and states to allow individuals to speak on laws affecting the community at public hearings or meetings of the local government.
Members of the public are sometimes required to provide notice or to register with their local officials before a specific meeting if they want to make a public comment. If you want to make sure you will have a chance to speak at a meeting, contact the meeting officials well in advance and notify them.
You can start by contacting your local officials to find out what is happening in your community. You can find your state representatives here. Also, find your county commissioners here (in the map, click on your county) and city council here (select your city from the directory). Ask to be informed of agenda items and notified of any upcoming meetings and start taking action on the issues affecting your neighborhood or community.
Before Writing a Public Comment
Setting the Stage
As you have already learned, commenting periods are typically short (normally 30-60 days). This means that if you know you will be filing comments on a particular permit or decision, it is very important to gather as much of the information you will need to write your public comment before the commenting period starts.
Some important steps you can take to prepare are:
1. Identify the Issues
One of the easiest ways to learn of a potential project is by reading the local news. Newspapers (in print or online) frequently contain announcements that a new plant is moving into town, or that an existing plant plans to expand. Also, some laws require that a permittee place a public notice of its plans in the newspaper—but these notices are usually very small and located in the back of the paper so you will need to look closely.
You can also learn about projects simply by being aware of what is happening in your community. If you see a large tract of land for sale, notice bulldozers, or other similar large-scale construction activities, it may be that a new polluter is coming to your neighborhood.
Try talking to local businesses and government officials. One of the best ways to know about the plans of industry or the government is to ask them! Work with your neighborhood coalition, your church, or other neighbors and ask for a meeting to discuss the operation of facilities in your town. This has the added benefit of letting the polluters know that the community is watching them and will hold them accountable. Industries that know they are closely watched by the community are more likely to be good neighbors.
If your town has a few large industrial facilities, like factories, power plants, or mills, you can look for existing permits for those facilities, which will also tell you when the permit will expire and need to be re-issued. See Knowing What’s in Your Neighborhood for more info on finding these types of permits.
For rulemaking comments, you can visit the federal government’s official on-line commenting system where you will be able to access all the materials related to EPA rulemakings. You can submit your comments on the proposed agency regulations here.
For environmental permitting you can sign up to be on public notice lists. Most government agencies will send you, free of charge, a list of all the proposed permits. You may contact the environmental agencies operating in Georgia here:
Talk to your neighbors. They may have valuable information about a particular facility or the impact that it may have on the community. Industries that are renewing a permit may have had a history of environmental problems in the area. You can use the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History online tool to find this information.
Explore near the site to find out what details are significant. For instance, there may be special areas—parks, schools, playgrounds, or other important places—that could be impacted by the project. There may be streams that would be impacted by water pollution but that have not been considered. There may also be sensitive populations, such as children or the elderly, that are near the site.
Make sure to document in detail and with pictures anything that may be important or special. Take care, though, that you do not trespass! Not only is trespassing illegal, but it may harm your ability to make your case that the project should not be permitted. Instead of focusing on pollution, the focus will be on your illegal trespassing.
Collect scientific observations. Depending on the project, see what you can find out about the animals and plants that live on any land that might be developed. Try to find out if any of those species are endangered or threatened. For more information about collecting community science data, see Collecting and Using Scientific Data.
3. Do Your Research
Once you know about a proposed agency rule or permit, it is important to learn more about how it will impact your community. You can take several steps to understand more about the permit’s effects.
First, review the public file on the rule or permit application. Public agencies are required to allow you access to the file. Some agencies will charge you to make copies. For the EPA and other federal agencies, you can access GovInfo, an online platform maintained by the Government Printing Office, which provides access to any regulation that is published in the Federal Register. This website also offers other government publications which may be helpful as you start drafting your comment. The platform allows you to search by category, date, or even by directly citing the document number you are looking for.
In Georgia, the EPD allows members of the public to obtain proposed permits and/or up to 25 pages of documents for free. After that, there is a 10-cent charge per page. See Accessing Public Records and Meetings for more information about your rights to access government records and about how to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
If you need help finding information, or understanding the information you have found, you can get in touch with experts. Call local, state, and national groups to find someone who may have expertise with the issues confronting your community. We have provided contact information for various groups in Appendix B. If you need a referral, or don’t know where to start, you can always reach out to us for assistance.
Getting Others Involved
Remember, there is always strength in numbers! Here are a few ways you can help get other voices involved in your project to increase the likelihood that your public comments will be successful.
Organizing your community is often necessary in the fight for clean air, water, or land. Through community action, citizens can bring a stronger voice for environmental justice. This voice is a powerful tool for positive change. Never doubt the strength of numbers throughout this whole process. Putting pressure on a public agency will result in better government accountability and may produce more corporate responsibility.
Building an effective community partnership can help you address the environmental needs and concerns of your community. These partnerships allow specialized organizations and community members to join together to identify a common problem which they can then address together.
These types of partnerships are sometimes called community-based participatory partnerships (CBPP). CBPPs are often formed to strengthen the impact of community education, outreach, or advocacy programs.
You can also consider forming a partnership with a specialized partner, such as a nonprofit organization or a university, that can help you identify resources and scientific information that can help add substance to your public comments. Together you can develop and implement a research plan to learn more about the problem. Results of the research can be included in your comments to illustrate the problems and can be presented to the community at large to develop a plan to address the issue. For advice on collecting scientific data, see Collecting and Using Scientific Data. For a list of various community organizations and contact information, see Appendix B.
An important part of your job will be education. Many people, for instance, may not know that even if a particular facility is complying with its permit, it may still be discharging cyanide, lead, copper, and zinc into your local river. A partner organization can help you inform your community members in a way that rallies them to prevent environmental harm.
Specifically, in the context of this chapter, you should try to encourage your neighbors, community groups, local nonprofits, or local churches to join you in submitting comments on a proposed facility. One set of comments can be signed by many individuals or groups.
You can also request a public hearing before (or after) the commenting deadline. Before the commenting deadline, a hearing can be a useful time to clarify issues, ask questions you may have, and find out if other people are concerned about the same problems. After the commenting deadline, a hearing can give you a chance to state your comments in person and ask questions of the agency.
If the project is particularly controversial, asking for a hearing can be a great tool to raise awareness in your community – even if the agency says no! An agency refusal to host a public hearing can work against them in the media because it looks like they have something to hide.
If you are successful in getting a public hearing, ask the local newspaper to include the notice and encourage your family, friends, neighbors, and local organizations to attend the hearing.
Writing a Good Public Comment
Once you have compiled your information, it is time to write your comment on the proposed project. The public notice should tell you the date that the comments are due and where to send the comments. It is important to submit comments by the stated deadline; you may lose the opportunity to challenge agency decisions if you do not submit comments within this period, and the agency may not review or respond to comments received after the deadline.
What makes a good public comment?
The most valuable public comments will be clear, organized, fact-driven, and to the point. Remember that the agency will have to read through many hundreds of similar comments and opinions, some of which can be very long, so making yours easy to read, direct, and clearly written will help you stand out. You can find an example of a public comment template in Appendix C-5.
You should give your comments careful thought and make every word count. Keep in mind your ultimate goal. Is it to stop the facility from being built at all, or is it to ensure that particular safeguards are put into place? What you say in your comments and how you say it will depend on your goal, and on the harm you are trying to avoid.
Here are some general tips to consider when writing your public comment:
Do your research: You must be well informed on the rule or regulation you are planning to comment on, as well as the specific issue you want to address. When possible, try to use clearly presented facts or scientific data to make your opinion more persuasive, and make sure you stay up to date with any news about the project you are addressing.
Establish your credentials: Make sure your comment identifies any authority or expertise you might have to speak on a certain matter. This might be professional experience, the support of a community partner, your personal connection to the planned site, or academic background. Not all expertise is formal or academic though – if you’ve lived in a threatened location your whole life, include that!
Use clear language:
Introduce yourself and your background.
State your objectives.
Use clear organization and formatting, and precise language.
Present an argument, supported with data if needed, and show how your argument is related to the issue you are commenting on.
Pay special attention to any requests for information or questions presented for comment within the document.
Cite or include sources if you refer to outside material in your comment.
Your citations do not need to be formal, but be as thorough as you can. Make it easy for a reader to find your source.
If you are citing to a website, give the link.
If you are citing to a newspaper article, give the author, name of the newspaper, and date.
If you are citing to a book, give the title, author, and page number.
Be respectful: Use appropriate language and make sure to address officials and agencies courteously and appropriately. Your comment should not raise the attention of the agency for being improper or rude. Remember this will go into a public record.
Tell your story: make sure to tell your unique story and identify the community where you reside and why this issue matters to you. It is important to show a connection between your story and the issue you are commenting on. Personal anecdotes can be quite powerful, but make sure that they are clear and concise. The agency understands the project, but they might not understand your community, or know about other facilities, pollutants, or challenges faced by your community. Educating the agency about your experience can help them to see the situation from your point of view
Include all your concerns: In the event that you need to file a lawsuit regarding this agency action in the future, you will only be able to bring up the issues that you raised in your comments in court. Other issues are considered ‘waived,’ because the agency was not notified of those issues at the commenting stage. So, make sure to include ALL your concerns in your comments, even if you don’t have any immediate plans to file a lawsuit.
Connect the dots: Agencies have a purpose, and their actions are typically guided by that mission. You can make your comments stronger by explaining how your comment relates or contributes to the agency’s mission. Most importantly,tell the agency specifically what you think it should do. Connect the dots of why you think that this proposal will harm your community, and then make the last dot your request, whatever that may be, like a modification of a term or the denial of the project.
Be concise: Agencies receive thousands of comments on proposals. You want your comment to be memorable and impactful, so keep it as short as you can while delivering your message. Stay on topic and make every word count. Read your comment to yourself and ask whether each sentence is necessary and is targeted at your goal.
What if, even after conducting your research, you have unanswered questions?
Include those questions in your comment! Even if you do not know the answer, you can ask questions in your comment about the possible impacts of the facility, and you can tell the agency that no information is available about your concern. You can even ask the agency to delay making any decision until more information is available, and tell them what information you think they specifically need to gather and publish before making an informed decision.
Remember that as a member of the community, you are likely to know more about the project’s neighborhood and the surrounding areas than the government agency does. Tell them about local resources that will be impacted, playgrounds, other pollution sources, or whatever information you think will be helpful. Say why these resources are important – don’t assume the reader will understand.
Finally, be sure to include your name, address, email, and telephone number so that the agency can respond to your comments.
What type of information should you include?
Public Comment Do’s and Don’ts
Do Not Include:
Relevant scientific data (this could include your own community science!), fact-driven information that you have gathered in your research, or relevant news about the project.
Theories about a project that cannot be demonstrated, gossip, or exaggerated claims that might make an agency not take your comments seriously.
Any specific violations of the law that you may have identified. Is a specific project going to break environmental regulations, or was there something that the agency missed?
Vague concerns that cannot be backed up with specific examples or reliable information.
The agency name, the regulation name, and the proposal’s docket ID number, as well as your name, address, telephone, and any community partners that might be supporting you.
Personal information about yourself such as financial information, medical records, or anything that you would not want someone else to read on a public record.
Your story (personal or community) and how it directly relates to the proposal.
Hearsay (things other people have told you but you have not experienced), confidential personal information, or accounts of any conflicts you may have had with specific public officials.
What to Do After You Submit Your Public Comment
Congratulations! You have finally submitted your public comment. Now what? Don’t forget about it – one thing that you can do to increase the chances that your comment is addressed by an agency is to follow up after the comment has been submitted. When you submit your comment, usually you will be provided with a comment tracking number by the agency or by the regulations.gov system. Write down that tracking number!
Here are some ideas on how you can stay involved:
You can track your comments through Regulations.gov. Search for your comment tracking number in the search box. When you get to the search results page, select “Comments” to display the proper results. Note that there may be a delay between when you submit your comment and when it appears in the search results. If you are concerned that your comment has gotten lost, reach out to the agency directly and verify that it was received.
Continue to have community meetings about this issue where you can rally additional support for your position amongst other citizens and community groups.
Meet with a public official or an agency representative to learn more about the status of the proposal and inform yourself further on the process and what decision makers are taking into consideration.
Attend any public meetings about the proposal.
Going to the press might be a good way to create additional awareness about a specific project, but be aware that you should not use the press as a way to raise theories or concerns that you cannot support or are unrelated to the issues raised by your comment.
Here are a few external resources that may be particularly helpful: