Q: Do I have a right to get involved in a situation where the state will be issuing an environmental permit for a property that borders mine?
A: You usually have a right to a notice of the impending permit as well as a right to publicly air your views regarding its impact. And in some cases, you may also have a right to challenge the permit. But first things first—how do you even find out that a permit is being requested? You must look for the public notice.
As a general rule, government agencies must give the community ample notice of an environmental action (e.g., permits/regulations) and an opportunity to comment on them.
Finding that notice, though, can be tricky. Oftentimes it's buried in the legal-advertisement section of local newspapers; it can also be found in the Federal Register, located at public libraries and online. Since public notices make for some heavy reading, an effective way to keep track of an issue important to you is to contact—in writing—the permitting department of the responsible agency (for example, your state's department of environmental issues if it's a state matter; local government if it is a local issue) and ask to receive a copy of all public notices regarding the permit.
After the public has been notified, the community is given a period of time to “comment” on the issue—usually 30 to 45 days. Now's the time to ask to review the permit and its application. Submit written comments questioning why it is being pursued and look at studies made by the agency showing why it's necessary.
For interpretation of the documents, ask to speak to a representative of the agency issuing the permit. If you think it's important that the community give input on the matter, request a public hearing with your state's environmental agency. While public hearings are often held automatically, they are not always guaranteed. In some instances agencies will not schedule a hearing unless they deem there is enough public interest. Once the hearing is on the calendar, do your homework.
Besides the basics—lining up your questions, gathering information and rallying community support—contact the environmental agency about its ground rules for public hearings.
Are you allowed to present your case for 5 minutes or 10? How many people are allowed to speak? Do you have to sign up in advance? Get all your ducks in a row before you stand before the mike. And once the date comes, make sure you're at the meeting.
It's hard to later appeal a permitting decision in court if you didn't bring up your concerns at the public hearing. What happens if the permit is issued despite strong community opposition? You can appeal the decision in a court of law, but remember, legal action carries a price tag and you should have very compelling evidence that the state's environmental agency acted recklessly and unreasonably.
You might be wise to try to join forces with a community advocacy or advisory group or an environmental group who may have more money to spend and connections with experienced attorneys.