THE ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT PROCESS
This is the first stage in the EA process and it refers to the process of deciding whether an environmental assessment needs to be carried out. A number of screening methods have been devised, including the use of positive and negative lists, screening matrices and initial environmental evaluations (IEE).
No matter what method of screening is used, it needs to be relatively quick, to avoid spending too much time on projects that may not be required to go through an Environmental Assessment. It also needs to be easy to use while being thorough enough to identify all projects requiring an EA.
A common approach to screening which has been adopted in many countries has been the creation of positive and negative screening lists. A positive screening list identifies a list of projects that that require an EA. For example, in Europe, EC Directive 85/337 includes two annexes that list projects as either having a mandatory (annex I) or discretionary (annex II) requirement for EA. A project will be designated as falling into either of these annexes depending upon the characteristics of the presented proposal, including the scale or size of the proposal, the nature of the activities, and the sensitivity of the surrounding environment. A negative screening list is the opposite of a positive screening list, designating types of projects that do not require an EA. This can become difficult however, as these lists can sometimes end up being very long.
Some countries, such as Canada and Thailand, have also now developed a two stage screening process, involving an initial screening, which is then followed by a secondary screening when the necessity for an EA has not been able to be determined during the initial screening.
Many environmental scientists will not actually participate in the screening process, as scientists will often be approached after a developer has decided that they need an environmental assessment in order for development to proceed. Sometimes only a preliminary assessment of impacts is needed whereas a full Environmental Impact Statement may be mandatory for some types of development.
Scoping is the process by which the key issues and concerns of interested parties (stakeholders) are identified, in order to determine the most important issues that should be addressed in the EA. Scoping may include determining exactly what type of assessment is required according to the law.
As EA’s are often conducted with restraints on the amount of time and budget available, scoping is an important mechanism to determine the priorities and focus for the EA, reducing the inclusion of irrelevant information.
Collection and Analysis of Information
This is the largest and most time consuming step. A number of factors are required to be considered within this step, including carrying out baseline studies, identifying potential impacts of a development, proposing project alternatives and considering the views and concerns of the public.
Public Consultation and Participation
Public involvement is an essential part of the environmental assessment process. It should be part of the process of gathering information for analysis. This is particularly important where proposed developments are likely to affect members of the public (remember that there may be considerable backlash from the community if they have not been consulted about an issue that is important to them). The public are also able to provide assessors with more detailed information on their local area and may be better able to identify potential environmental impacts. Public involvement might take the form of public meetings; calls for submissions or surveys. Such public involvement may be required by law in some countries. Public participation may be time consuming and more costly in the short term, but it can increase the acceptability of the project and reduce conflict and delay. Information collected should be used in the Environmental Assessment Report.
Reporting the Findings of the Study
The findings of the study are assembled into a document that is often referred to as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
The statement needs to be presented to the relevant people, including those who commissioned the report and the developmental body who required that the report be prepared. The developmental body will use the ES in order to make a decision about whether the project will go ahead.
Because most EA systems state that an assessment must be carried out by the project proponent, there is usually a need for a review, carried out by an impartial body who are not involved in the study. This is because the report will have been prepared by a scientist who has been hired by the proponents of the development, thus the scientist may be seen to have been potentially influenced by the organisation paying them. The impartial body will determine if the ES is objective and impartial and covers all important issues.
After a project has gone ahead, it is worth analysing the actual impacts of the development and making a comparison between the predicted impacts and those that occurred. Analysing the actual impacts of a development allows for a better predictive ability for future EA studies. This will result in better future decisions and an improvement in environmental protection.
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