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Over the past several months there has been considerable mention of EIAs in the press and on talk shows. The reaction of the public indicates a belief that an environmental impact assessment (EIA) is a technical report produced by experts that determines whether a project should be allowed or not. This view reduces what is a most important tool for development to what used to be called “you say and I say”. The EIA is not a single report, but a process designed to help communities develop responsibly.
One of the implications of the “either you have it or you don’t” attitude toward an EIA is that it suggests that it is possible to build anything without affecting the environment, to make omelets without breaking eggs. Digging a trench for a foundation affects the shape of the underground water lens, destroys the eggs of ground-dwelling organisms, cuts roots of the nearby trees and changes the way groundwater flows across a property. This is compounded when the chemical processes in the curing of the concrete produces heat in an otherwise cool underground, further affecting underground organisms. In fact, any physical development affects the environment. It is therefore counterproductive to pretend that a project that requires the construction of large structures will not or should not affect the environment.
To create our human settlements, then, we have become accustomed to deciding what level of impact justifies the benefits we anticipate. It is the process of predicting those effects and weighing them against the benefits that is the beginning of the EIA process. But it does not end there. If the trench we dig could cause rainwater to create a new and unacceptable pattern of erosion, we might choose to build a dam or a drainage well to stop its flow and therefore eliminate the threat. This is called mitigation of the threats posed by a potential threat, and is the key strategy used in the EIA process. Considering potential mitigation efforts should be part of our discussion, or we would be missing the point of the EIA process and avoiding the responsibility for real environmental management.
For example, we could choose not to have cars in our community to avoid the threat of accidents, or we could mitigate the threat by creating “rules of the road” and insurance companies. We choose what benefits are worth the effort of finding solutions to the associated threats. That is what the EIA process allows us to do.
Over the next two weeks, although it may stretch the mission of this column somewhat, we will discuss the classic eight-part EIA process.
The built environment requires altering the natural environment. The environmental impact assessment process is designed to help the development process result in a more sustainable human habitation of the planet. We will discuss its use in the development of an environmental management plan. Hopefully we will encourage a more inclusive use of EIAs, with more involvement by the affected communities.
• Patrick Rahming & Associates is a full service design firm providing architectural, planning and design services throughout The Bahamas and the northern Caribbean. Visit its website at www.pradesigns.com and like its Facebook page. The firm’s mission is to help its clients turn their design problems into completed projects through a process of guided decision-making, responsible environmental advice and expert project administration.