The eight stages of environmental impact assessment
Last week, we suggested that the most important role of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) is that it is not a simple report, but a series of events and activities that contribute to the community’s ability to manage its environment. That process begins with the question ‘How does this project, program or legislation threaten the environment?’ and ends with a plan for avoiding the impact of those possible threats. In the course of the process, both those proposing the project and the community affected have the opportunity to work toward a relationship that is mutually beneficial. That is why it must be seen as a process and not just a report.
Graham Ashford, of USC, puts it this way: “The environmental impact assessment is the process. The environmental impact statement is the outcome.”
In our previous discussion, we said that the process requires the completion of eight steps. While this is true, the steps are not necessarily isolated or simply sequential. Those old enough to remember driving with a gear shift would relate to the need to shift gears in response to changing conditions, sometimes repeating the same changes several times, even while continuing toward the same destination.
Step 1: qualification
The need for a formal environmental assessment depends on the location of the project, the scale or the type of development proposed. In most cases, these are set out in legislation or policies. It should be noted that aspects of environmental assessment are considered routinely, without the need for formal statements, as for example the Town Planning Department managing the legislation designed to avoid threats to the environment by small scale residential and commercial development.
Step 2: terms of reference
Once it is agreed that there is a need for a formal assessment, the authorities should be prepared to agree with the proposer on which aspects of the environmental mix could be threatened by the project. The four primary areas of concern are the natural environment, the cultural environment, the economic environment and the land use patterns. Unfortunately, in The Bahamas, we have tended to ignore the cultural environment, and to focus on only the natural and socioeconomic environments when considering major projects.
Step 3: base information
In response to the terms of reference, the proposer collects and studies data from the site and carries out expert technical studies on the required aspects of the project impacts. This includes direct site investigation. existing published information, local myths and stories about the site and previous studies.
Step 4: statement
Armed with the base information, the proposer and their experts first determine the extent to which the project does, in fact, present threats to the local environment, then develop strategies for avoiding or managing those threats. These mitigating strategies become a significant part of the report that is considered by the authorities. The government assesses the statement, first to determine the extent to which it accurately records the conditions on the site and the threats implied, then the extent to which the mitigating strategies are both technically and socially acceptable. At this stage, the proposer may be required to make changes to their proposal to reach initial agreement.
Step 5: public consultation
Once the government is reasonably satisfied that the major concerns have been addressed, the details of the project are made available to stakeholders, either through publication or public meetings. The public’s queries and comments and objections are recorded and considered as part of the final approval process. Again, the proposer may be required to amend their proposal to address substantial concerns by the community or other stakeholders.
Step 6: final submission
When all items have been addressed, a final submission is made, and if accepted becomes the basis for the agreement of the environmental management protocol and the details of the project.
Step 7: final approval
The final sign-off establishes that there is agreement on the environmental issues threatened by the project and the strategies that will be built into the project to mitigate those threats, that a protocol has been agreed to for the monitoring and management of those mitigating strategies and that the project may proceed.
Step 8: environmental management
Both the project and the government commit to the monitoring and managing of the project’s mitigation strategies on a regular basis. This is one of the most important aspects of the process, and the one most often overlooked.
Next week we will discuss the fact that we in The Bahamas have only been concerned about the natural and socioeconomic environments while terrible damage has been experienced by the cultural (archaeological, social and historical) environments. We will see how the environmental assessment system could be more beneficial if properly used.
- 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.