Disasters in EIA

2nd March 2018

Andrew Mahon explores environmental impact assessment (EIA) practice and the need to address the expected effects arising from the vulnerability of projects to major accidents or disasters.

One of the more interesting developments in EIA practice coming out of the new regulations is the need to address the expected significant effects arising from the vulnerability of a proposed project to major accidents or disasters. For practitioners who are used to focusing on ‘likely significant effects’, this apparent need to consider low-likelihood risks introduces an intriguing tension.

To rationalise this potential contradiction and to inform a possible way forward for the assessment of accidents, it is worth looking at the background to the changes to Directive 2014/52/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 April 2014 amending Directive 2011/92/EU on the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment (the Directive) and the subsequent transposition into the UK EIA Regulations (such as The Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2017). At a time when the profession is promoting more effective EIA, this way forward would ideally encompass the new legislative requirements without compromising a drive for more proportionate environmental statements.

There are clues to the reasons behind the change in the introduction to the Directive. It notes that the previous 20 years had seen several UN and European Commission initiatives and publications, acknowledges that accidents and disasters have become more important in policy making, and concludes that they should be considered in assessment and decision-making processes.

The United Nations Hyogo Framework for Action Programme (2005-2015) (January 2005) suggests that disaster risk arises when hazards interact with physical, social, economic or environmental vulnerabilities, and that hydro-meteorological events cause most disasters. It sets out a series of measures to make the world safer from natural hazards, including procedures for assessing the disaster risk implications of major infrastructure projects.

The European Commission’s A Community approach on the prevention of natural and man-made disasters (February 2009) promotes a Community-wide strategy for the prevention of accidents and disasters. It focuses on climate change and the consequential increase in the frequency and magnitude of extreme meteorological events, such as heat waves, storms and heavy rainfall. It suggests that the growing vulnerability of society and the environment to such disasters is due, at least in part, to increasingly intensive land use, industrial development, urban expansion and infrastructure construction.

Some of the principles of accident prevention later began to appear in industry-specific regulation. For example, Directive 2012/18/EU of the European Parliament and the Council of 4 July 2012 on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substances (the so-called Seveso III Directive) aims to reduce the risk of technological disaster by regulating industrial activities using dangerous substances that could cause major accidents with consequences for human health or the environment. Council Directive 2009/71/Euratom of 25 June 2009 establishing a Community framework for the nuclear safety of nuclear installations promotes the continuous improvement of nuclear safety. The 2014 revision to the EIA Directive offered the opportunity to enshrine these initiatives more generally into EU legislation, and the new Directive introduced the consideration of accidents and disasters into the EIA process, into screening, and into the mandatory environmental report information. It notes that:

‘In order to ensure a high level of protection of the environment, precautionary actions need to be taken for certain projects which, because of their vulnerability to major accidents, and/or natural disasters (such as flooding, sea level rise, or earthquakes) are likely to have significant adverse effects on the environment. For such projects, it is important to consider their vulnerability (exposure and resilience) to major accidents and/or disasters, the risk of those accidents and/or disasters occurring and the implications for the likelihood of significant adverse effects on the environment.’

Not unusually, the intent and detailed content of the Directive in respect of accidents is open to interpretation. However, it seems to be relatively clear in respect of some key points. The requirement is intended to be applied to ‘certain’ rather than all projects, and only to the risk of ‘major’ accidents or disasters. Whilst the focus is on vulnerability to climate change and extreme meteorological events, the scope also includes industrial and technical accident hazards. The approach to assessment should be risk-based, and there is an expectation that the assessment can generally use existing information assembled and evaluated for other risk-based safety-case and regulatory purposes to avoid duplication.

The main uncertainties revolve around the type and severity of hazard environment that merits screening projects into EIA (it applies to projects that ‘are likely to have significant adverse effects on the environment’ – presumably referring to pre-mitigation potential), and on what threshold might be used to define ‘major’ accidents and disasters. The advice that information assembled and evaluated for other regulatory purposes can generally be used implies an expectation that relevant accident types would be so damaging that there is likely to be existing protection and specific legislation or regulation in place, and suggests that a high bar is assumed for screening.

Fundamentally, there is also a lack of clarity over exactly what sort of situation is intended be covered by this expanded EIA regime. There are two things that it is not intended to be. This is not a post-event environmental evaluation of a disaster, nor is it an assessment of the suitability of a development location in relation to existing hazards (though practitioners will not be able to assess the vulnerability of the development unless the existing environmental hazards are understood).

The one situation that it is definitely intended to cover is a systematic identification and assessment where the vulnerability of a development to an existing low-likelihood environmental hazard introduces or increases the risk of sensitive receptors being adversely affected following realisation of that hazard. This could result from the development introducing or enhancing a pathway between an environmental hazard and one or more sensitive receptors, increasing the likelihood of a pre-existing risk, or from the development being vulnerable to a pre-existing low-likelihood hazard, such that it releases secondary, triggered effects that impact one or more sensitive receptors (figure 1).

As with EIA effects generally, the risk may be related to increased vulnerability of the receptor or increased exposure to a change. The aim of the EIA in this respect should therefore be to introduce mitigation measures that: reduce the likelihood of hazard; reduce the magnitude of the hazard on the development if it is realised; break the pathway between the hazard and the development; increase the resilience of the development to the hazard; reduce the magnitude of the triggered effect; reduce the vulnerability of the receptor to the triggered effect; or, break the pathway between the development and the receptor (figure 2).

Figure 1: pathway for triggered effects from realisation of a low-likelihood hazard.

Figure 2: target areas for mitigation measures.

There is a fourth situation that the changes may or may not be intended to cover, and this merits more careful consideration and analysis. Is it the Directive’s intention also to encompass accident and disaster risks that directly result from the inherent characteristics of the development? While the Directive does not explicitly confirm this, the background reference to the Seveso and Euratom Directives would seem to support this intention, and if the broad purpose and intent is to identify and plug possible mitigation gaps, then it would seem eminently sensible to adopt an outcome-focussed approach and to consider the possible direct hazard risk associated with the development as well as its possible facilitation of linking existing environmental hazards with receptors.

In terms of content and approach, the Directive suggests that the environmental report should include a description of the vulnerabilities (the nature of, and exposure to, the hazard, and what has been done to reduce the likelihood of occurrence or increase resilience), and take a risk-based approach to the assessment of likely significant adverse effects and their mitigation. This emphasis on the ‘risk of likely significant effects’ rather than likely significant effects per se perhaps relaxes the tension that would otherwise exist between the restriction of EIA to ‘likely significant effects’ and the inclusion of effects that are extremely unlikely (but disastrous if they did occur). Perhaps ironically, the Regulations omit reference to ‘risks of’ in relation to the process for dealing with major accidents or disasters, and thus arguably miss the point that a risk-based approach is required, and reintroduce the tension! Otherwise the transposition into domestic Regulations has been quite faithful to the Directive, though they do add ‘significant’ as a descriptor to the ‘effects’ that need to be considered, in accordance with the general thrust of EIA to focus on significant effects.

So how could practitioners move forward with the inclusion of accidents and disasters into their EIAs? Early examples of EIA scoping reports and environmental statements that encompass the new requirements tend to be based on an evaluation of the development against a compiled scoping list of low-likelihood accident and disaster types. Some have used the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies (Cabinet Office, 2015), though the definition of ‘emergency’ in this context may not necessarily correspond to high bar accidents and disasters. The Red Cross also includes a useful list of relevant hazards on its website. One possible general checklist is set out in figure 3.

Figure 3: example checklist of hazards to be considered

The EIA process should evaluate the exposure and vulnerability of the development to each of the hazards on the list, identify the potential major accidents or disasters associated with each, and assess the risk of likely significant environmental effects that would be caused.

It would be easy to get hung up on definitions of terms such as ‘hazard’, ‘accident’ and ‘disaster’, as these are not set out in the legislation, or to become engulfed in detailed contemplation about significance and risk. Whilst these are important, it would be more useful at the outset to develop a pragmatic approach that sets the new requirements into the existing EIA context. The broad intent is to identify hazards of very low probability but major consequence that would lead to significant environmental effects in the very unlikely event that the risk was realised, and then crucially to check that the design, resilience and mitigation measures plug any gaps that might relate to them. Therefore, minor accident risks of local consequence should be scoped out, ‘business as usual’ issues such as localised flooding should be covered elsewhere in the EIA, and all risks that are included should be related to land-use planning purpose of the EIA (figure 4).

Figure 4: Where the accident assessment requirements apply

It is unlikely that the practitioner community can achieve a commonly accepted ‘threshold’ for the definition of ‘major’ accidents or disasters, or a threshold for ‘significance’ of increased risk associated with a triggered effect on receptors, but it should be possible to adapt the approach taken to determining significance of effects from that used in the EIA generally.

In adopting the changes, practitioners should respect the professional drive for more effective and proportionate EIA. Unfortunately, the early signs are not good! Examples are already emerging where accidents and disaster chapters are being included, apparently because the topic exists, rather than it being relevant. Do we really want to see a precedent set by an urban development environmental statement that includes an ‘Accident and Disaster’ chapter reporting likely significant effects from possible house fires, and fuel spills after traffic accidents? Once such an approach starts, it can become the norm and is difficult to stop or reverse, and it will add to the disproportionate nature of EIA that current initiatives for more effective EIA aim to overcome. We must recognise the intent of the change, and the background UN and European policy that drove it: we can scope out accidents and disasters if they are not relevant at the ‘major’ level intended.

Andrew Mahon is a principal environmental consultant with TUV SUD and a Principal EIA Practitioner on the IEMA Register.

Image credit: iStock

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