28 Oct

Environmental documents tend to be highly complex, large and extremely burdensome for an average member of the public.  When an Environmental Impact Statement is posted electronically, you will typically see disclaimers like “Due to the size of the Draft EIS files…” or “for additional supporting technical documents, please contact the agency directly.” Agencies have the responsibility to report complete information, descriptions of data collection methodology, technical documentation of results, analysis and disclosure of known potential impacts.

Unfortunately, the average person has no idea what these potential impacts mean to them. One can provide the most technically accurate description of the impact, down the decibel, but the affected party typically has no baseline comparison or any idea what these technical descriptions equate to “in real life.”

Ok, it’s loud…but how loud is it? 

For example, pretend you are a property owner with a property that backs up to a proposed light rail project. You have been notified by the agency that your property may be impacted by noise that would result from the proposed light rail project. You read an excerpt Noise and Vibration Chapter of their Environmental Impact Statement to better understand what this means:

Noise is measured in a logarithmic unit called a decibel (dBA). Human perception of noise is measured in decibels on a scale that has been weighted to middle and high frequency sounds that are more discernible to humans. This scale is called an A-weighted scale. By using this scale, the range of normally encountered sound can be expressed by values from 0 to 120 decibels. On a comparative basis, a 3-decibel change in sound level generally represents a barely-noticeable change outside the laboratory, whereas a 10-decibel change in sound level would typically be perceived as a doubling (or halving) in the loudness of a sound.

 Noise levels are commonly measured and analyzed in two ways: Leq (sound level equivalent) and Ldn (24-hour day night average). Leq is a steady sound level over a specified period of time, such as one hour. It is often used to determine noise near areas where quiet is essential at all hours, such as a school or a park. The Ldn is commonly used to describe the 24-hour day-night average and assigns a 10-decibel penalty to night-time hours. Ldn is commonly used to analyze noise impacts in areas where people sleep. In most communities, Ldn is generally found to range between 55 dBA and 75 dBA.

OK, if you’ve read this far and feel like you actually understand how noise is measured, then you are wired much differently than the 95% of the population.  

Agencies will also present impact findings qualitatively, with words like “severe” or “moderate.” Returning to the previous example, the agency provides the following qualitative definitions for noise impacts (BTW- these definitions are provided by Federal Transit Administration Guidance on Measuring Noise and Vibration) :


Severe Impact: Project-generated noise in the severe impact range can be expected to cause a significant percentage of people to be highly annoyed by the new noise and represents the most compelling need for mitigation. Noise mitigation will normally be specified for severe impact areas unless there are truly extenuating circumstances that prevent it.

 • Moderate Impact: In this range of noise impact, the change in the cumulative noise level is noticeable to most people but may not be sufficient to cause strong, adverse reactions from the community. In this transitional area, other project-specific factors must be considered to determine the magnitude of the impact and the need for mitigation. These factors include the existing noise level, the predicted level of increase over existing noise levels, the types and numbers of noise sensitive land uses affected, the noise sensitivity of the properties, the effectiveness of the mitigation measures, community views and the cost of mitigating noise to more acceptable levels.

So let’s say that you are told that you have a severe noise impact. From the definitions above, you know that a significant percentage of people would be highly annoyed by the new noise.  Severe… Significant… What’s the difference? And what does that even mean?!!

You find that the detailed appending technical documents to this Noise and Vibration chapter provide even more technical equations, jargon and results. If you happen to have a PhD in Electrical Engineering & Acoustics, or are an Environmental Lawyer you are probably excited about the level of technical information and detail that has been presented to you.

If you are 95% of the population, you are likely confused. You have heard the words “Severe” and “Significant” tossed around, but your definition of “Severe” and the federal government’s definition may be two different definitions.

Are agencies hiding information from the general public?

No, absolutely not! Quite the opposite, in fact!

Are agencies completing their due diligence, to the letter of the law, with the best intent to disclose all potential human and environmental impacts, to reduce the potential risk for legal challenges? Are we also required to produce a document that meets legal sufficiency tests and reviews from the Environmental Protection Agency?

Yes. Of course!

But as environmental professional, are we presenting information as effectively as possible to 95% of the population?


((Cricket chirp))

((Cricket chirp))

((Cricket chirp))

Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ) guidance, and other applicable Federal agency-related requirements, Federal agencies want the highly technical information disclosed to the public; to avoid legal challenges to their environmental documents. However, almost completely contrary from this desire to disclose technical information for risk avoidance and legal sufficiency requirements is the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 on October 13, 2010. The law requires that federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” On January 18, 2011, he issued a new Executive Order, “E.O. 13563 – Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review. ”It states that “[our regulatory system] must ensure that regulations are accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand.” Two other executive orders (E.O. 12866 and E.O. 12988 ) cover the use of plain language in regulations (http://www.plainlanguage.gov).

So, as environmental professionals, how can we meet these competing goals? How can we both clearly communicate information that the public can understand and use, while still protecting ourselves from legal risks?

Well, one idea is to provide a “plain language” version of the environmental document. The document would use infographics and pictograms to explain complex technical information along with plain language references to the more technical chapters and appending documents.


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