Just 15 minutes after the doors opened last night, the auditorium at Forest Hills Middle School — a public school — in Wilson was beginning to fill with people.
But the “public” listening session about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline wasn’t really public. And only select people could listen.
Hosted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the four-hour listening session was intended to take public comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement regarding the pipeline. But FERC officials prohibited the media (there were three outlets — NCPW, Southeast Energy News and the Wilson Times) from interviewing citizens, recording comments or taking photographs inside the auditorium — even with permission from the citizens themselves. Reporters were allowed to do their jobs outside of the auditorium but could not be present for the listening sessions themselves.
The controversial 150-mile natural gas pipeline will run through eight counties in North Carolina, beginning in Northampton County and continuing to Robeson County. It is part of a larger 600-mile pipeline that begins in West Virginia.
Contacted this morning at the Washington, D.C., office, FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said former Commission Chairman Norman Bay and Director of Energy Projects Ann Miles decided to change the way the meetings were conducted. The rationale, Young-Allen said, was that FERC had received complaints from citizens saying they hadn’t been able to comment during public scoping meetings. At those gatherings, citizens would publicly comment in front of fellow attendees and FERC staff. Sometimes FERC would have booked the venue for three hours, but it took twice as long to get through the list of commenters.
Each speaker had a time limit, Young-Allen said, “but people ignored it or yielded their time. Some people would take more time to speak and not everyone had the opportunity.” Last night, 65 people attended the listening session in Wilson; 48 people commented. “It would have been half that in a town hall style meeting,” she said. The private listening sessions, she added, “have proven very successful,” and allow FERC “to have more control.”
That argument isn’t logical. Town councils, county commissioners, state and federal agencies conduct public comment and listening sessions — often on extremely contentious issues — every day. Speakers are given a time limit, usually two to three minutes, to ensure everyone who wants to comment, can. The meeting moderator — be it the mayor or a chairperson — is charged with keeping the speakers to their time. The meetings run as long as they need to, in order to honor the democratic process.
For example, several times a month, the NC Department of Environmental Quality holds public comment and listening sessions on air and water permits. The EPA often holds public meetings and listening sessions about Superfund and hazardous waste sites, most recently in Davidson, regarding an asbestos release. In 2007, the Department of Homeland Security hosted a packed meeting of 400 people in Granville County about the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility; public pressure helped thwart that project, which moved to Kansas. (It’s still not built.)
Young-Allen said that this time, the comments were supposed to specific to the Draft Environmental Impact statement. Previously, she said, comments were more general, such as “We don’t like it” or “I don’t want it in my backyard.”
Joe Poland, who lives in Nashville and opposes the pipeline, told NCPW he considered the listening session “illegal.”
Wilson resident Barbara Exum attended the meeting to oppose the pipeline. It will cross part of her family’s farm, which is nearly 100 years old. She told NCPW that when it was her turn to comment, she was led to a private room, where she sat down in front of a microphone, a FERC official and a court reporter. She said she was given three minutes to speak. With 30 seconds left, a FERC official raised a small red flag signaling that time was expiring.
Down the hall in the school cafeteria, Exum said she disliked the private meeting style: “This is a joke.”