Turning words into action in EIA

7th November 2013

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  • Environmental Impact Assessment



Jennifer Wade from Jacobs encourages environmental impact assessment (EIA) professionals to think carefully about their role in ensuring the delivery of mitigation

The accuracy of many of the predictive statements contained within an environmental statement (ES) hinge upon the effectiveness of proposed mitigation measures.

Unfortunately it is apparent that many mitigation commitments made in an ES are not implemented effectively and that a lack of post-construction monitoring (and reconciliation of predicted and actual outcomes) means that the scale of the problem is not well understood.

Even when post-construction reviews are undertaken the results are rarely shared widely. We only tend to see successful case studies, despite the greater learning opportunities presented by looking at failures. During my career in EIA, I’ve seen post-construction studies covering a range of different projects and completed by several companies, however, the following issues seem to recur:

  • mitigation is not implemented at all;
  • mitigation is only partially or inadequately implemented;
  • mitigation proposed by the EIA practitioners is not realistic or practicable; or
  • mitigation is not adequately managed or maintained, and therefore loses effectiveness over time.

There are already some useful articles about how to ensure good mitigation practice (such as recent EIA Quality Mark articles by Mouchel and RSK Environment). However, EIA practitioners should also consider what opportunities we are taking to understand the stages of a project post planning, where communication can break down and result in the failure to deliver the desired mitigation outcomes.

One reason behind failed mitigation is the fact that, in many projects, EIA practitioners’ involvement ends at the point where planning permission is granted . Their whole focus is on the production of the ES, in accordance with their defined scope and budget. This means that those who undertake the predictive EIA process are not necessarily involved in checking whether the development is implemented as proposed, and whether the potential environmental impacts are managed in a way to ensure that the predicted outcomes are secured.

This disjuncture contributes to shortfalls in achieving desired outcomes and practitioners are often denied the opportunity to take lessons learned for future schemes.

There is, therefore, a convergence of interest in having proponents, permitting authorities and EIA professionals move towards a continuity of involvement from site selection through to construction and operational stages, whenever possible. This would enable the EIA process to evolve from a predictive exercise towards an outcomes driven process that learns from its own failures as well as successes.

All is not doom and gloom, however, as project-specific environmental management plans (EMP) are increasingly recognised as invaluable tools in translating mitigation commitments into action and the EIA profession is becoming accustomed to preparing more focused EMPs.

However, the commitment to ensure that the requirements of the EMP are followed through to project delivery – through contractual requirements, monitoring and intervention, or periodic assessment against observed outcomes, for example – is often less than satisfactory.

It is sometimes joked about that if there are two good ways of doing something, a contractor will find a third, stupid way of doing it. Although unfair, it does illustrate the importance of ensuring that mitigation measures are well described and presented in contract documents if they are to be implemented properly.

Unfortunately, while certain groups of professionals such as engineers and landscape architects often have some training in the preparation of contracts, many EIA professionals have not. It isn’t always apparent how to translate mitigation requirements into formulaic “works information” clauses.

Worse still, sometimes the EIA teams are not consulted when the contract documents are put together and mitigation measures are omitted or inappropriately or only partially acted upon. For example, I once discovered that a highway engineer had specified a 1.2m post and wire fence for the purposes of reptile exclusion.

In circumstances where the EIA practitioner is retained through to the construction phase, significant benefit can be derived through early discussions with the contractor on construction methods and programme options to ensure that desired mitigation outcomes can be achieved. For example, in a recent workshop with a contractor I was able to establish the feasibility of applying an alternative method of working which has greatly reduced the amount of vegetation clearance required.

Finally, the consideration of how mitigation will be maintained long term is a vital part of ensuring effective delivery. Discussions with the party responsible for the long-term management of the scheme are essential in understanding whether mitigation proposals are maintainable and affordable. A well-prepared handover management plan will provide information on what has been built, why and how it should be managed. Without this information clearly set out, the long-term management of mitigation measures is unlikely to be successful.

If we value our role as EIA professionals, we should seek greater continuity of involvement with developments to enable a focus on the outcomes beyond the ES. Of course, due to the way the consultant procurement market has evolved, this is easier said than done.

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

Jennifer Wade, AIEMA, is a principal EIA/SEA specialist at Jacobs

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