Can The Department of Environmental Conservation Handle Fracking Comments?


And now it’s time for another fracking story!

At the Voice, we have been keeping up with hydraulic fracturing developments in New York and the rest of the U.S. As the Empire State weighs whether to lift a drilling moratorium, part of that process was the public commentary period.

A few months back, you see, concerned citizens had the opportunity to give the Department of Environmental Conservation their two cents; by law, the DEP must review and respond to all of those comments before telling Gov. Andrew Cuomo whether the practice should take place.

Though we pointed out that the DEP does not necessarily have to listen to public opinion, we still wanted to know: Can the Department realistically handle almost 80,000 comments?Compounding our curiosity are reports that the DEP is poised to released recs to Cuomo soon. (The DEC is officially mum on those rumors.)

We decided to ask the DEC: How many people do they have working on this stuff? Are they experienced professionals or unpaid interns? How many pages of comments are there? How long does it take them to review and respond to each page, etc.?

Here’s what the Department told us:

“We are in the process of preparing responses to the 13,000 comments we received during the first comment period and the 66,700 comments we received during this comment period. Under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, each unique comment must be responded to. A compilation of these responses, called a Responsiveness Summary, will be developed included in the final Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement and final regulations. SEQRA establishes the process that must be taken in developing the SGEIS.

There are 58 DEC staff members working on the SGEIS including reviewing and responding to public comments. Collectively, this staff has more than 1,200 years of experience as professional civil, environmental, petroleum, mechanical and chemical engineers, geologists, scientists, foresters, biologists and attorneys. A third of these individuals have advanced degrees. In cases where DEC does not have the expertise on staff, DEC has engaged consultants to help prepare draft responses. All responses are go through numerous levels of review including by DEC senior executive staff.
Once we review the comments, we will make any necessary changes to the documents. We expect the final documents to be released this year.

Several divisions at DEC review and prepare responses to comments, including our minerals, water, air and lands & forests divisions, depending on the nature of the comment. The SGEIS and regulations processes are agency processes with final determinations on whether and how to proceed made by DEC.

We do not have statistics on how much time it takes to read per page, how much time is spent on each comment, as this greatly varies, nor how many pages the total 66,700 comments represents.”

Inconclusive info this was indeed! As such, we decided to run some (very basic) math on these stats to see whether this seemed like enough to handle these responses.

For estimation’s sake, we started off assuming that each response will take at least a minute to read and process.

That would give us at least 79,700 minutes worth of comments.

Broken down, 79,700 minutes equates to a little more than 55, 24-hour days or 115, 8-hour work days.

Theoretically, it would seem that 58 staffers could indeed divide 115 days’ worth of reading work among themselves — that’s only some two hours of work per person for this task.

What would be key in determining thoroughness, then, would be the amount of time used to draft the responses.

Say the DEC only spends five minutes responding to each of the 79,700 comments: That’s 277-ish days or 830-ish 8-hour workdays — a hair over two weeks’ worth of work for each of the 58 DEC staffers. Obviously, the more time spent per response, the more days’ worth of work for DEC staffers. Also, the number could potentially go down, since the DEC only has to respond to unique comments.

So far, then, here’s what we can say: The DEC does have the manpower to at least take a look at these things. How closely the Department will look, however, has yet to be determined.

Ya dig?

[A note on our maths: Don’t judge us too much but our sorry, liberal arts degree-holding asses played pretty loose with rounding decimals, so these estimates might vary by a day or so. If they’re really fucked, just shoot us an e-mail or leave a comment.]