EIA - what happens after we all go home?

19th October 2012

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Bruce Blaine, from Peter Brett Associates, discusses environmental impact assessment (EIA) and its aftermath

EIA practitioners are experts at describing the environmental baseline of aspects and setting the scene prior to the commencement of any development. Sometimes this is long before the development might take place and in other cases it is very close to the submission of a planning application. Either way, surveys, research, analysis, modelling, testing and the application of science provide practitioners with the data on which to base statements on the environmental conditions found when introduced to the project.

As part of the assessment process, EIA professionals then predict the environmental effects of the proposals and describe how mitigation could, potentially, be integrated into the scheme. The EIA Regulations 2011 require developers to assess the significant effects of a scheme and report in an environmental statement how they could deal with them.

Those not regularly involved in EIA might wonder how the assessor can be so sure of the effectiveness of the mitigation, or indeed what certainty he or she can have in EIA surveys to establish the baseline. At the end of the day it comes down to experience and it is important that specialist assessors are used to defining the baseline.

Embedding mitigation

The crucial question is: how can EIA practitioners be certain that the mitigation suggested has actually worked? And whether the impact predicted has actually been avoided and the environment no worse off than before the development?

Successes in such cases comes down to persuading the client to incorporate environment management through the design and construction phase of a project to ensure that any effects which can be designed out are adequately dealt with through design modifications, specifications or contract conditions.

This type of approach is being imposed more frequently through planning conditions requiring specific approval of certain elements or the implementation of a construction environmental management plan. More enlightened clients have a stated mitigation objective, underpinned by their ISO 14001 environment management system. Planning conditions clearly impose a legal obligation, but client objectives can be hard to invoke if the project manager is not persuaded and budgets are tight, for example.

This stage is the most crucial in ensuring all the hard work of the EIA is not lost.

One eminent QC, in recently preparing for a scheme which was certain to go to planning inquiry, stated he required a bulletproof environmental statement to avoid any chance of a challenge weakening the planning case.

Should the project receive approval, he said, the environmental statement would be little more than an “expensive doorstop”, but his goal would have been achieved. This is a disappointing view, considering that the environment statement should be the start of protecting the environment not the end.

The environmental statement must set out how the impacts will be avoided or mitigated and it must provide the approving authorities with the tools to ensure the necessary steps are taken. If the authorities don’t use them then implementation becomes a much tougher battle.

Remaining vigilant

Many projects do, of course, have adequate controls and everything is done to demonstrate that the necessary mitigation measures are in place. Even so, it is necessary to remain vigilant.

One major infrastructure project I worked on a few years ago, required a 5 metre strip of soil and grass to be retained alongside each watercourse crossing to filter the silt-laden run-off from the adjacent earthworks before reaching the stream, thus mitigating the potential pollution.

This measure was standard, but the earthworks contractor was required in his contract to return one year later to remove this strip. He decided this was unnecessary and removed all the topsoil immediately. The result was two years of battling the pollution of 40 watercourses, each leading to two main rivers. A very costly mistake for all involved.

Mitigation in practice

The question of how much EIA practitioners really know about the effectiveness of the measures they propose and implement remains pertinent. In reality, very few projects offer the opportunity to return in a year or even longer to see how well they are working.

This is particularly the case for ecological mitigation and water pollution, both of which can be affected by wider influences, but can also be true of more exact sciences such as acoustics. It’s never certain that the barriers put in place actually attenuate the noise as predicted and modelled.

A recent road scheme, on which I worked from inception to construction, did require post-completion testing to satisfy the department for transport’s funding rules. The noise levels were as predicted, but it isn’t often practitioners have the opportunity to gather evidence to provide conclusive proof.

EIA is an important tool in the protection of the environment, but it is what happens when EIA professionals have left the project when the environment is most under threat and when, as practitioners, we should be ensuring our hard work does not turn into a doorstop.

This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice

Bruce Blaine is director of environment and sustainability at Peter Brett Associates LLP


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