The facts behind the “facts”: The reality of public meetings on major projects

A Facebook acquaintance of mine posted an update declaring that she wanted “FACTS” (her capitalization, not mine) about the Dakota Access Pipeline. According to her, the facts are that “there were many meetings years ago to discuss the possibility of the pipeline where locals had the opportunity to voice their opinion and it’s recorded that there was not a lot of opposition at these meetings.”

OK, so let’s talk about a few facts about these sorts of public meetings.

  1. Statement in public notice about the Dakota Access Pipeline
    This is an actual statement that appeared in a public notice from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the Dakota Access Pipeline. Is this English or Newspeak?

    Often the only legally required public announcement about an upcoming meeting like this is in the legal notices section of the newspaper. The legal notices section of the newspaper. Did you know there was one? (Did you know that newspapers still exist?) In my experience they’re usually in the “local” or “metro” section of the newspaper, in the back, tucked in among classified ads, with the same sort of small print. Compelling, must-read stuff there, people! So, clearly these people should have known the public meetings were taking place.

  2. These meetings are often held at places and times that make them difficult to attend. I mean, really, what person working full-time with young children at home can’t make time to attend a two-hour-long meeting at 5.30pm on a Tuesday evening about a project that may (or may not) be built five to ten years from now? Especially when the meeting is conveniently held 20 or 30 miles from where you live.
  3. The full scope of the project, and its full impact, is often not apparent at these meetings. If the final design or environmental impact statement is available at the time of these meetings, text is often heavy on jargon and legalese, not everyday language that makes it easy for the average layperson to understand what will actually be happening. And images? Well, since we’re all experts at reading blueprints and technical diagrams, the obvious impact on water supplies two decades from now should really be apparent, shouldn’t it? And all of that is assuming that the final design is presented at these meetings. Often projects are still in preliminary stages of planning at the time of these meetings — one of the reasons jargon-y, technical language and diagrams are all that’s available. And the full scope and impact of a project may not be apparent until after the final design, which is often completed after these public meetings.

    Dakota Access Pipeline diagram
    This is an actual diagram that appeared in that public notice I mentioned above. That red line just looks like it’s going to destroy the water supply for an entire group of people, doesn’t it?
  4. It is difficult to organize vocal, impactful opposition to appear at these meetings. I refer you back to items 1 and 2 above. If you want to stand as the lone voice of opposition in front of a panel of elected officials and highly-paid and highly-educated technocrats, go ahead. That’s noble of you, and I respect you for it. But it gets lonely out there, and if it feels like you’re just talking to the wall, it’s because you very well may be. In part because of item 5.
  5. These meetings are often held just to fulfill the legal requirement that a public meeting be held. But, let’s face it, the government and its private-sector partners aren’t really looking for feedback or support or opposition. They’re just looking to mark a checkbox on their way to rubber-stamping a project. So, even if there were overwhelming opposition to a project at these public meetings, it may not matter.

If you found out that a proposed project had the potential to pollute your water supply, threatening your health and livelihood as well as that of your family, friends, and community and irreparably damaging your land, should I really tell you to keep your mouth shut because there was a public meeting about it years ago and you didn’t show up? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Do you think the president and the media and the public are really going to pay attention to someone who voices their opposition in a three-minute statement at the microphone at one of these public meetings? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

All of this is why we have a First Amendment that guarantees freedom of petition and peaceable assembly, because sometimes that’s the only way to voice your opinion at the time that it actually matters. It is difficult to fault the Standing Rock tribe for their opposition to the pipeline or the way in which they’ve chosen to express that opposition. Failure to show up at or express opposition at some public meeting about a major infrastructure project years before that project actually happens is not tacit approval of the project. The window to voice your opinion does not close when the meeting is over, because the First Amendment keeps it wide, wide open.

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