The Public’s Role in Environmental Decisions
This fact sheet explains how the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) encourages members of the public to become involved in our activities.
Public Participation Role
DTSC’s public participation program ensures that communities have an opportunity to actively participate in the decision-making process. Statute and policy mandate a community involvement program that creates a dialog with the public when we are overseeing cleanup at a hazardous waste site, reviewing a permit application, or engaging in other regulatory activities. Moreover, we recognize that meaningful public involvement ultimately results in better environmental risk management decisions.
Get to Know the Community
The key to a better decision-making process is early and continuous public involvement. To be most effective, the interested public must have the opportunity to make its concerns known while the project is in its earliest stages. At the start of a project, DTSC’s public participation staff assesses the community to evaluate the level of interest, identify interested parties, and determine the nature of potential concerns. This assessment allows us to outline the various communication steps we will take to involve the public.
Keep the Community Informed
One of the most common ways we keep the community informed is by developing a mailing list of interested or affected people, and mailing timely fact sheets about the project. To include your name on a mailing list, contact either the project manager or public participation specialist. If you would like more information on a project, you can visit a local information repository for general interest information and reports about a project, or visit the DTSC regional office to view a more thorough administrative file.
Interested community members are also encouraged to informally contact DTSC staff identified on fact sheets. These are often the most useful contacts because they can answer your questions directly.
Often, DTSC staff can meet with individuals or groups to provide information helpful in understanding the process or a proposed decision. We also encourage interested community members to visit our web site.
Meet with Interested Parties
DTSC’s public participation specialists and project managers hold formal meetings on most projects. Early community meetings focus on proposed activities at a site or facility. Discussion may also cover any available information such as the results of preliminary research or testing. Later meetings often focus on investigation results, health issues, or proposed decisions. Once DTSC has gathered enough information to make a decision, a public notice runs in the local newspaper of general circulation and a public comment period begins. The public comment period can last from 30 to 120 days depending on community interest, urgency of a decision, and legal requirements. The need for a public meeting or hearing during this time depends on community interest and legal requirements.
Welcome All Viewpoints
Throughout the public comment period, we produce documents that explain the proposed decision, the process used to reach it, and the information considered. The proposed decision is subject to public comment by mail, e-mail, or verbal comment taken at a formal hearing or a community meeting. DTSC’s project manager must respond to all relevant public comments received during this period.
Public comment often alters a draft decision and, if the changes are significant, we may seek additional notification and public involvement. In any case, we mail a project update to the interested public when the decision is final. As site work begins, project staff often involve the community further on project details such as time of work, noise, and dust control.
One of the most important results of public participation is ensuring that the community has enough knowledge to understand and respond to prospective decisions. Some communities do not have the resources to understand the complicated science of a site assessment or the factors that go into determining potential health risks. Without this knowledge, the community may feel unable to interpret DTSC’s proposals. Our public participation specialists are trained to assess these issues and to develop an outreach strategy that addresses them.
Many aspects of a community can affect communication. Early in the decision-making process, we assess these aspects and examine how staff members can communicate with a community. Public participation specialists identify community leaders, meeting locations, times when meetings are appropriate for a community, and linguistic and cultural considerations. At some point, you may be asked for this type of information.
One of the most important aspects of this effort is the language spoken within a neighborhood. Where necessary, we provide informational documents such as fact sheets in appropriate languages and provide interpreters at meetings.
Another key question is how the community receives its information. Newspapers, television stations, and radio programs often need to be identified so they may have an opportunity to provide news coverage of the project. Public notices are placed in newspapers of general circulation to announce meetings and comment periods.
If you feel your community does not have adequate information about a project, then you should notify the public participation specialist immediately. His or her name, e-mail address, and phone number will appear on every fact sheet.
Environmental Impact Report
One of the most important laws regarding information on environmental issues is the California Environmental Quality Act, commonly known as CEQA. CEQA requires public agencies that are making discretionary decisions on a project to conduct an analysis to determine if the project could have a significant effect on the environment.
The process is used to analyze environmental conditions at the property and surrounding area, as well as any impacts the project may have on wildlife, land use, traffic, noise, and adjacent communities. The analysis results in a negative declaration or an environmental impact report. This document provides information to the agency and to the public about the nature and extent of those impacts and, if necessary, any measures needed to counteract those impacts.
The CEQA document is available in the information repository for a project, and is subject to public review and comment. While the CEQA document does not present a decision, it is a good source of information for community members.
The Public’s Role in the Contaminated Site Cleanup Process
In the DTSC cleanup program, scientists collect data regarding the potential type and extent of hazardous waste and develop potential cleanup alternatives. They also prepare a health risk assessment, which looks at the potential affect on human health for each cleanup alternative.
When DTSC feels it has enough information to support an alternative, the draft decision undergoes a public comment period, usually lasting 30 days and usually including a community meeting. Once they have selected an alternative, DTSC’s site mitigation staff members work with environmental contractors to implement it. A “cleanup” may take a few days or many weeks. Sometimes, leaving some waste behind is the safest way to protect people and the environment.
The Public’s Role in the Facility Permitting Process
When DTSC receives an application for a permit, a permit renewal, a permit modification, or closure of a permitted unit, a project manager is assigned to the facility. The project manager decides if the applicant has provided enough information to determine that the proposed action meets DTSC’s requirements. The project manager may request additional information to ensure that the proposal protects people and the environment and that it is technically realistic.
Depending on public interest, DTSC may hold meetings and distribute fact sheets on the project. Local residents can view the permit application and other documents in the information repository. Public comment periods are required for nearly all permit decisions (some emergency permits are the exception). These may run from 30 to 120 days.
A public hearing is often held within the comment period to facilitate gathering public comment. Hearings are formal meetings where communication generally goes one way; however, when the public has significant questions about a project, a less formal “question-and-answer” meeting can improve understanding about a proposal.
More Information & Contacts
For assistance or additional information, please contact the DTSC Office nearest you. You can also contact our Regulatory Assistance Officers at:
Toll-Free in CA: 800-728-6942 or 800 72-TOXIC
Outside CA: 916-324-2439
For a list of all DTSC offices, go to our Office Address and Phone Numbers web page.