April 2013 Project Update: A Plain-Language EIS

I wanted to share with you a little about the approach we're using for the Angoon Airport Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)—and why we've chosen to write a different kind of EIS for this project.

There's a common notion that EISs should be written for an eighth-grade level. I've even heard some people say they should be written at a fourth-grade level. It's an interesting idea—and a good reminder to environmental professionals that EISs are meant for the public and should be as accessible as possible. Some professionals hear the guidance "write to an eighth-grade level" and think that means "dumb it down." That's not true, and it's certainly not the intent of the National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA. One of the intents of NEPA is to disclose the impacts of a project to the public. We can't fully disclose impacts if we "dumb it down."

That said, many EISs are more complicated than they need to be. They tend to be technical and complex, requiring focus, concentration, and work on the readers' part. EISs are usually written by teams of scientists who are good at their research but are not necessarily trained as writers. They think and write in the terminology of their discipline—in other words, jargon—and they sometimes assume that everyone understands the same words, concepts, and information that they do. We want to do things differently.

For the Angoon Airport EIS, the FAA is working with a team of writers, editors, graphics specialists, and reviewers who know how to translate the normal complexity of an EIS into 1) plain language; 2) easy-to-understand drawings, charts, and maps; and 3) a structure readers can use to easily find the information they need.

How are we doing this?

The EIS team is using a three-pronged approach to create this plain-language EIS:
  1. Plain Language: The Plain Writing Act, which became law in October 2010, requires that federal agencies use "clear Government communication that the public can understand and use." The editors on our team are trained in writing as well as in the environmental sciences. They work closely with each scientist to rephrase jargon into simpler terms that are still correct but easier to follow.
  2. Graphics: The editors, graphic designers, and mapping specialists on the team work with the scientists to create maps and images that help with the "heavy lifting" of expressing scientific and technical concepts. For example, a table listing acres of vegetation removal might be layered right onto a map showing the location of the vegetation removal. This makes it easy for the reader to visualize the potential environmental effects across a project area and to compare the effects in different areas. Another example, showing the functions of a wetland by using a picture, rather than words (see figure below).

  3. (Subset of a larger graphic)

  4. Navigability: The EIS will be offered in two formats: as a paperback book and as a PDF available on a website and CD. The PDF will be searchable and will have hyperlinks for website-style navigation, so readers can move easily from section to section. Those with the paperback book format will have similar flexibility because all hyperlinked information will be findable by section number or page number. This format allows the reader to find key information quickly and easily, eliminates the need for repetition, and reduces length and confusion.
Through this approach, we hope to write an EIS that is accessible to the public, while still disclosing the impacts at an appropriate level.

I look forward to sharing it with you! As always, if you have thoughts to share, please call me at (907) 271-5453 or e-mail me at Leslie.Grey@faa.gov. I always enjoy hearing from you. Thank you for your interest in the project!

Best regards,

Leslie Grey

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