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‘Why bother? is toxic to this issue.’

HOT SPRINGS – In a town hall-type meeting that was part informative and part pep rally, members of the Save the VA Committee laid the groundwork for the next stage of the battle to save the VA Black Hills Health Care System’s Hot Springs campus.

“It’s important for you – all of you – to realize that now we have a voice; a legal voice that they have to listen to,” said committee member Amanda Campbell. “For the past two years we had freedom of speech but legally they (the VA) didn’t have to listen to us, we had no voice. This process gives us that voice.”

Campbell was referring to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, which she said requires federal agencies to consider impacts that its announced intentions will have on the local community as well as the environment.

“The federal agency, in this case the VA, is required to examine the pros and cons of each and every alternative presented to them through the EIS.” (Environmental Impact Statement)

“The Hot Springs VA is not closing,” emphasized Save the VA chairman Pat Russell. “The EIS gives legal weight to the voices of veterans and your voice will be needed now, more than ever.”

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki announced in early January that he had decided to proceed with the EIS on the VA’s preferred alternative of closing the VA Medical Center in Hot Springs and moving the venerable site’s PTSD and Substance Abuse Treatment program to Rapid City.

“NEPA was required from the start,” Campbell noted. “They don’t handle the process well.”

She outlined the process that will begin in the near future, where the VA will hire an outside contractor to conduct the EIS, which is an analysis of different alternatives.

“We have our alternative already,” Campbell said. “We will update our alternative in preparation of the EIS.” During the process the contractor is to gather information on how the preferred alternative will affect the socio-economic aspect of the community, as well as its environment, school and more and the community’s stakeholders.

“Who is a stakeholder?” Campbell asked. “Anybody who will be affected by the proposed closing of the VA is a stakeholder and will be included in the EIS.”

She said after the initial scoping process a notice will be given that public comments will be taken on the proposed action.

“This is where we need to be ready,” she said. “We need to get on board and submit our alternatives and to let your voices be heard.”

After taking testimony, a Draft EIS is prepared, followed by a comment period before a final EIS is prepared.

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“The system usually fails on step four,” Campbell said, “the comment period. This is your second chance to say, ‘Hey, that’s not what I said,’ or ‘That’s perfect; just what I wanted.’ But it’s important to have everyone participate.”

Campbell and Russell each warned of having a ‘why bother’ attitude when it comes to participating.

“’Why bother’ is toxic to this issue,” Campbell said. “When I hear ‘why bother’ I think of all of the veterans who could have said ‘why bother’ in the face of conflict and are now sleeping beneath overpasses. I think about the thousands of veterans who have been healed at the Hot Springs VA. You can drink that Kool-Aid or you can commit to caring for our own, which is still a vital part of who we are.”

With the work completed by the Save the VA and other community members over the past two years, Campbell also noted that the local group was “so far ahead (of the VA) on our alternatives. They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s halftime now in this game, and we can’t look over and say ‘why bother’ when we are ahead of the game.”

To begin the process, Save the VA asked attendees to participate in EIS workshops, with different focus on matters involving veterans, property owners, business owners and employees of the VA.

Campbell added that she doesn’t know that the NEPA process will keep the VA facility open in Hot Springs, but said, “I know if you don’t participate, it will close.”

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