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Environmental Impact Assessment - Scope and Methods
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Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is the term applied to the systematic examination of the likely impacts of development proposals on the environment prior to the beginning of any activity. The actual term is derived from Section 102 (2) of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 which marked a turning point in environmental legislation in the United States. For the first time those proposing to undertake certain projects had to show that their projects were not going to significantly affect the environment. They had to produce what is called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to show the nature and scale of their project, the affected environment, and the likely impacts and measures taken to reduce/monitor these impacts.
In principle, EIA should apply to all actions likely to have a significant environmental effect. The potential scope of a comprehensive EIA system is considerable and could include the appraisal of policies, plans, programmes and specific projects.
EIA as it has developed in many countries involves a number of procedures and stages :
1. Identification of projects requiring EIA, sometimes known as screening;
2. Identification of the key issues to be addressed in an EIA, called scoping;
3. Impact assessment and evaluation;
4. Impact mitigation and monitoring;
5. Review of the completed EIS and;
6. Public participation.
The result of an EIA is assembled in a document known as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which looks at all the positive and negative effects of a particular project on the environment. This report is just one component of the information required to aid decision makers in making their ultimate choices about a project.
EIA can be considered as a mechanism which maximises the efficient use of natural and human resources. It can also reduce costs and time taken to reach a decision by ensuring that subjectivity and duplication of effort are minimised, as well as identifying and attempting to evaluate the primary and secondary consequences which might require the introduction of expensive pollution control equipment or compensation and other costs at a later date.
Ireland has had a form of EIA since 1963 but more specifically since the 1976 Local Government (Planning and Development) Act which specified that ´environmental studies´ be carried out where a project was polluting or likely to cause pollution and where the project cost was in excess of £5 million. However, the studies were not mandatory nor were they required at all for public developments. In addition there was an absence of a clear definition of the ´environment´. The threshold criteria were also criticised on the basis that the development had to satisfy both simultaneously. In other words a project costing less than £5 million would not be required to have such a study carried out even if it was polluting.
EC DIRECTIVE 85/337/EEC came into force in Ireland on 3 July 1988. The European Communities (Environmental Impact Assessment) (Motorways) Regulations, 1988 gave effect to the Directive for motorway projects. The European Communities (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations, 1989 provided for the incorporation of the Directive into Irish law. The Local Government (Planning and Development) Regulations, 1990 which came into effect on 1 February 1990, set out the detailed requirements for EIA in respect of applications for planning permission and planning appeals and also established procedures for EIA with regard to developments by or on behalf of local authorities.
The First Schedule of the 1989 Regulations specifies which projects require an EIS and relates to Annexes I and II of the EC Directive. All projects listed in Parts I and II of the First Schedule to the 1989 Regulations require an EIS. While the Minister for the Environment has the power to exempt a specific project from this requirement, this provision seems unlikely to be applied to any significant extent.
Examples of projects and associated thresholds, for which an EIS is required under Part II of the First Schedule, include, but are not limited to, the following:
Industrial estate development projects where the area would exceed 15 hectares.
(1 hectare is 10,000m2 or 100 hectares = 1km2)
Urban development projects which would involve an area greater than 50 hectares in the case of projects for new or extended urban areas and an area greater than 2 hectares within existing urban areas.
Waste water treatment plants with a capacity greater than 10,000 population equivalent.
Oil and gas pipelines exceeding 80 kilometres in length.
All fish meal and fish oil factories.
All extraction of petroleum (excluding natural gas).
All installations for the manufacture of cement.
From the above examples it can be seen that where thresholds are included they relate to site areas or quantities which reflect the scale of development involved.
The Local Government (Planning and Development Regulations) 1990 incorporate an additional provision that, at the discretion of the relevant local planning authority, an EIS may be required for projects which are less than the specified thresholds, in terms of quantity, area or other limit. This is a most significant provision, the guiding principle being the extent to which the planning authority ´consider that the development would be likely to have significant effects on the environment´.
The 1990 Regulations also provide that, in the event of an appeal to An Bord Pleanála, the Board may require an EIS where such was not already required or requested by the local planning authority.
Paragraph 2(c) of the Second Schedule of the 1989 Regulations outlines the following heading as specified information which shall be included in an EIS:
a description of the likely significant effect, direct and indirect, on the environment of the development, explained by relevance to its possible impact on:
- human beings
- the landscape
- the interaction between any of the foregoing
- material assets
- the cultural heritage.
In the context of a project involving a planning application and submission of an EIS, the following four stages are identified as comprising the EIA process:
i. Planning Application - including drawings and specifications submitted as in the case of any planning application, in accordance with the requirements of the Local Government (Planning and Development) Regulations 1977.
ii. Environmental Impact Statement - an assessment by the applicant (developer) of the effects (impacts) of the proposed development on the environment.
iii. Consideration of Application/EIS - consideration by the local planning authority or An Bord Pleanála (if appealed) of any submissions or observations on the EIS.
iv. Decision of Competent Authority - the decision of the local planning authority at local level or An Bord Pleanála at national level.
Council Directive 97/11/EC amending Council Directive 85/337/EEC on the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment was adopted by the Council on 3 March, 1997. The new Directive extends the scope of Directive 85/337/EEC in terms of the type of projects for which impact assessment is compulsory. It also widens the band of projects which are subject to individual review by the Member State concerned - the criteria for this is given in the Directive. It further clarifies the information which developers must supply and provides for cooperation of Member States in the case of transboundary projects.
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