Public meetings in virtual environment: Meeting CERCLA milestones for FUDS projects

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville District
Published Aug. 19, 2020

For environmental cleanup projects, public involvement is required at specific stages of response actions by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act provisions. 

Traditionally, this stipulation is met by holding in-person public meetings, where the Corps of Engineers’ project manager, subject-matter experts, along with the contractor, make a presentation, and allow stakeholders the opportunity to ask questions and provide comments.

With restrictions on travel and public gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic this year, the project development team for the former Kincheloe Air Force Base site, had to come up with an alternate solution to meet this requirement to present the Proposed Plan. 

According to Louisville District project manager Clayton Hayes, initially, there was some resistance and uncertainty, but following many discussions and guidance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Headquarters, the project development team came to a resolution and began coordinating a virtual public meeting in lieu of and in-person meeting. 

“Having a virtual public meeting seemed to be the only way we could meet this requirement and for the project to remain somewhat on schedule,” Hayes said. “Being this was the first virtual public meeting in our Formerly Used Defense Sites program for the Louisville District, it was difficult at first.”

While this was treading new ground for the Louisville District, for the contractor, Jacobs, it wasn’t out of the ordinary.

“Jacobs has successfully hosted multiple virtual meetings for other clients, and those experiences would easily translate for a FUDS virtual meeting,” said Kim Amley, Jacobs project manager. 

Yet, it wasn’t jump in feet first. Appropriate coordination and collaboration had to be done.

“Timing was everything. We had to first cancel the original public notice, then determine what platform/technology we could use (what was acceptable to meet the government security requirements, and did our contractor have that capability?),” Hayes said. “We had to revise the specific language for the new public notice, which we wanted to give 45 days advance notice, and determine the logistics of how we would present the same information in a virtual environment. We had to revise the slide presentation and hold several practice runs, in advance of the scheduled meeting, to make sure everything worked, since we would have to rely 100 percent on technology.”

The team faced many challenges to bring the virtual public meeting together.

“Anytime you cut new ground, it’s a challenge with many unknowns. Everyone had different ideas on what we should do. The PDT had to sort out what was important and organize the presentation to fit a virtual environment,” Hayes said. “Also to mention, our contractor was very patient and cooperative. Jacobs had to adapt to using an acceptable government platform for the virtual meeting, which they did not already have.”

Amley agreed with Hayes on the limitations of which meeting platform USACE would allow for the meetings was a challenge, along with long-lead advertisement, and limitations on confirming public attendance.

Even with the challenges, the team worked to come to a successful end. 

“Conducting internal dry runs to establish the narrative for each meeting, determined procedures for introducing project team members, and established protocol for technology failures (are what made the former Kincheloe AFB virtual public meeting a success),” Amley said.

So while there are no handshakes to establish rapport, and nonverbal body language is nonexistent to aid in communication, the content – words – play a huge part for a virtual public meeting.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, holding public hearings and meetings virtually aid in continuing to provide meaningful public participation and engagement during the current circumstances.

So for now, the virtual public meeting setting has become the new “norm,” in place of in-person meetings for projects in the Louisville District FUDS program.