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.

NYC to require 5¢ charge for single-use shopping bags

Over two years ago I wrote about my experience on a quick run to a nearby grocery store to pick up a few items. Seven items, to be exact—which were then placed in six plastic bags, flimsy because they were intended to be used only once and then tossed out. (It was a spur-of-the-moment trip on the way home that evening, so I didn’t have the usual reusable bags I would have given the grocery store to put my items in.)

Those six bags were among the approximately 10 billion single-use bags that the NYC Department of Sanitation estimates New Yorkers toss out every year—a whopping 19,000 every minute. Disposing these bags costs city taxpayers in excess of $10 million a year.

So it is welcome news today to learn that the New York City Council has passed legislation that will require stores, with “limited exceptions”, to charge five cents for every single-use bag they give shoppers. According to The New York Times, the legislation passed by one of the closest margins in recent years, 28–20. The mayor, Bill de Blasio, has expressed his support for the law.

But it’s not in the clear yet: former mayor Michael Bloomberg “offered a proposal in 2008 for a 6-cent bag fee — 5 cents for stores; a penny for the city — before dropping it several months later amid strong opposition. At the time, one of the opponents on the Council was Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who is now a state senator. Last month, Senator Felder introduced a bill [S7336] that would prohibit the levying of local fees on bags; it passed a committee this week,” writes the Times.

And the fee itself is not perfect. Unlike the bag fee imposed in my former hometown, the District of Columbia, where the nickel collected on every bag helps clean up the heavily polluted Anacostia River, the stores will keep every cent they collect of New York’s proposed charge.

But, in the end, if the results in New York are anything like those in the nation’s capital and other cities that have imposed a charge on single-use bags, you can expect to see far fewer of them littering our streets and polluting our city very soon. A small fee can lead to big behavioral change.

Image: New York City Hall by Momos via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

The reason for California’s water problems in one incredible photo

This photo on the front page of The New York Times this morning is just amazing.

The New York Times front page, 5 April 2015

The caption reads, “In California, where lush developments like this one in Cathedral City abut bone-dry desert, a long drought is forcing residents to reconsider the state’s identity.”

See more incredible photos on The Times’s website.

Why electric cars aren’t a silver bullet

“It’s staggering really, how much of a city is set aside for cars, and how unwilling we often are to even share that space with other uses and users,” Brent Toderian writes on his blog at Planetizen. “Electric cars do nothing to address this space issue.”

Another great example of these comparison photos. I love Transport for London.

The world seems to be anxiously awaiting the advent of affordable, viable electric-powered cars as the solution to all the woes caused by overdependence on personal automobiles. While we should continue to research and develop technology that will make cars more energy efficient, the fact is that what comes out of the tailpipe isn’t the only issue. In fact, it’s probably not the most important issue.

Even if all vehicles became electric tomorrow (which they won’t), and even if your local electric energy sources are on the renewable side, like BC’s hydro-electric power (which they’re likely not – it’s just as likely they’re on the especially dirty side, like coal), the truth is there’s no totally “clean” energy source, no energy without impacts.

But what, then, is the solution? Or is all hope lost? As it turns out, the solution has been right in front of us all along:

The only real energy solutions are urban densities, use-mixes and patterns, and personal choices, that depend on much less energy. That means efforts like making walking, biking and public transit truly inviting options in our cities and communities.

Perhaps the best part of this post is the gallery of images, like the one at the top of this page, comparing the space taken up by transit users, bicyclists, and drivers. Though I was also really impressed by the graphs that quantified that space. As Mr. Toderian points out, what pictures of pedestrians, bikes, or cars lined up on a street show is how much space they take up when they’re parked; what they can’t show is the even greater amount of space they take up when they’re actually moving. But these charts include that, too.

Last of all, I’ll point out that the same arguments could be made when it comes to self-driving vehicles. Single passengers in autonomous cars will still need just as much parking, and even if they can drive closer together, they’ll still take up more space while traveling than people using other modes.

Read more
Mobility in Cities is About Space – Proven Powerfully in Pictures!
by Brent Toderian
Planetizen, 29 April 2014

NYC considering bag fee

Two weeks ago I wrote about a quick run to the grocery store where I picked up seven items that the checker packed into three plastic bags—which were then dutifully double bagged, meaning I carried seven items home in six bags.

So yesterday evening, as I was doing laundry at the laundromat down the street, I was delighted to see CBS 2 report that the New York City Council is considering legislation that would require stores to charge customers per disposable bag.

According to Weijia Jiang’s report, the charge would be 10¢, which stores would be allowed to keep (unlike Washington, D.C.’s 5¢ bag fee, which is split between stores and a fund to clean up the heavily polluted Anacostia River). Supermarkets, bodegas, street vendors, drugstores, clothing stores, and department stores would be required to charge the fee; restaurants, bags for medication at pharmacies, and liquor stores would be exempt. The fee would apply to both paper and plastic bags.

Though stores would keep the change, the city government stands benefit financially, too, by saving an estimated $10 million a year it currently spends on disposing paper and plastic bags in the city’s garbage.

The New York Post reports that the legislation has 19 cosponsors, just seven short of the 26 needed to pass it.

This is welcome—if overdue—news.