Geographic information systems in EIA - now and then

19th March 2013

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Experts from Terence O'Rourke describe how the use of geographic information systems in environmental impact assessments (EIA) has evolved

Terence O’Rourke has been producing environmental statements (ESs) since the late 1980s and some recent internal archiving has revealed just how much our ESs have changed since the original EIA Regulations were brought into force.

Many of our early ES documents were presented in A3 landscape format and the majority were desktop-published. While covering the range of aspects required by the Regulations, and being supported by relevant technical appendices, these documents generally had a lighter feel to them than many modern ESs and the desktop published format lent itself to relatively easy reading.

The benefits in easy interpretation of the ES findings did come at higher cost in terms of graphical production time and this, coupled with the more difficult storage of A3 documents, saw an evolution to the more ubiquitous use of presentation binders in multiple volumes.

While there is still no prescribed format for ESs, the general trend across the UK appears to be for larger and larger ES documents, many of which require bespoke storage boxes. The trend for larger all-encompassing ESs begs the question as to whether this is helping or hindering the decision-making process, but that is a topic for another article in itself!

Using GIS

A key change over the last 10 years in particular has been the increasing influence of geographic information systems (GIS) in the EIA process and the beneficial effects of this in presenting information in an ES.

GIS in one form or another is now inextricably enmeshed into our in-house EIA process, but early use of geographical information was quite rudimentary. Our first notable inclusion of specific digital geographic data sets in the EIA process was in a report for a proposed wind farm on the Isle of Wight in 1999.

To assist the site selection process, the Isle of Wight Council kindly provided key datasets on elements such as designations and known constraints. Back then, each dataset was stored on a separate three-inch disc. While basic by modern standards, these data sets enabled a geographically-accurate sieving exercise that proved very useful in the EIA scoping process and hinted at the potential scope for this technology.

In the intervening 14 years, we have progressed our use of geographical data to the point that we now employ dedicated GIS specialists and the technology is used on virtually every project that we work on.

The application of GIS ranges from simple tasks, such as production of accurate land-ownership boundaries through to complex analysis of multiple datasets and advanced visualisation software such as Topos.

The benefits

We have found particular benefits in being able to quickly and accurately present data, such as constraints mapping, in a comparative format, which lends itself to the early stages of the EIA process including site selection, due diligence, screening and scoping.

While a picture does not always replace a thousand words, the ability to present environmental information in an easily intelligible graphical format undoubtedly aids interpretation of the ES, particularly for the lay-reader, and speeds up the process of data analysis and impact assessment.

Our experience has been that integrating GIS in the EIA process provides added value to our clients and is helping to significantly improve our assessments. These advancements are not limited to the final submitted documents, but are also fundamental to the iterative assessment process and public consultation.

It is likely that GIS could play a greater role in effective EIA in future years. More concise ESs are considered to be beneficial for all stakeholders in the process including clients, consultants, consultees and decision makers.

The effective use of GIS data will not only help to reduce the scale and quality of finished ES documentation, but early presentation of accurate data will help to provide confidence in the range of issues that should be included in the EIA through the scoping process.

With an increasing emphasis on digital presentations of data and electronic submissions, GIS is perfectly placed to help present information in this forum and maybe we are not too far away from fully-interactive electronic ESs?

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

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