Quality Mark: New 2017 EIA Regulations topics – in practice
Anna Gillespie examines how the additional requirements of the updated EIA Directive can best be addressed
Since the 2014 amendments to the EIA Directive, implemented by the 2017 EIA Regulations, environmental impact assessment specialists have been developing solutions to address the additional requirements set out within the updated legislation while retaining a focus on the need to increase proportionality of environmental statements (ESs).
The 2014 amendments to the EIA Directive and the 2017 EIA Regulations introduced specific mention of ‘major accidents and/or disasters’, ‘climate change’ and ‘human health’. These topics were already covered by many practitioners for certain types of projects. For example, health impact assessment or human health risk assessment has historically been undertaken for proposed energy from waste facilities. However, the legislative updates mean that EIA coordinators must now consider these topics at the scoping stage for every project, in order to identify whether significant effects are likely. There is undoubtedly some overlap between these additional topics and the scope of other topic chapters, which have been included in ESs for many years. This has led to some deliberation as to whether these additional topics should be considered in new, separate chapters of the ES or whether they should be incorporated within other topic chapters.
In choosing the most appropriate method to address these topics, caution should be adopted – striking a balance between inclusion and proportionality, and seeking to avoid repetition of content. The approach to assessment of these topics should be dependent on the nature of the project, the study area and the extent to which significant effects are likely to arise. Scoping during the early stages of the EIA process should clarify the most appropriate ES structure, with a focus on the key topic areas that are relevant to the project in question.
With respect to human health, it is noted that for some projects there may be no unusual health risks. In such cases, the key health pathways are likely to relate to health effects from changes in air quality, noise (wellbeing) and socio-economic factors. Where such effects are already covered in air quality, noise and socio-economic chapters within the ES, an additional health chapter or health impact assessment is unlikely to be necessary. However, for other projects, additional health pathways may exist, or health effects may be a key concern for stakeholders, requiring separate and specific consideration within the EIA process. For these projects, the separate consideration of effects on human health presents an opportunity to provide more detailed assessment of a range of health and wellbeing determinants. It can also help to ensure that effects on, and mitigation/enhancement measures for, vulnerable communities are clearly set out, to avoid exacerbating existing inequalities as a result of development.
With respect to flood risk, the inclusion of a flood risk assessment as a technical appendix to an ES may already consider the main effect relevant to ‘major accidents’ and ‘climate change’. In most cases, the drainage design should have taken into account an appropriate level of allowance for climate change, implemented through elements such as attenuation features and raised floor levels. However, for other projects, additional considerations may be relevant to the consideration of climate change, such as emissions of greenhouse gases or coastal erosion.
As it is recognised that greenhouse gas emissions are the largest cumulative effect resulting from all projects at a global scale, the requirements of the 2017 EIA Regulations have increasingly motivated those working on projects to scope greenhouse gas emissions into the EIA process. The challenge lies in agreeing the level of emissions assessment detail that is appropriate to the project, in order to keep the ES focused. This requires a good understanding of the project and its design; the baseline conditions (eg existing site use); whether the development would result in a net emissions increase or decrease; and what mitigation measures would be appropriate. There is currently no recognised, published methodology that sets out significance criteria or a defined threshold to aid the assessment of significance for effects in relation to greenhouse gases, other than IEMA’s 2017 guide to assessing greenhouse gas emissions, which indicates that all emissions can be considered significant. Where effects in relation to greenhouse gas emissions are predicted, the assessment will need to consider the appropriate spatial and temporal boundaries, and must take into consideration the inevitable uncertainties associated with predicting how climate change will affect the environment in the future.
Another approach to addressing topics within the EIA process may be to include technical reports as an appendix to the ES (eg a health impact assessment or inclusion of details of accidents and disasters relating to, for example, highway design and fire risk). However, in doing so, it is crucial that the differences between EIA and any component/supporting technical reports are understood, particularly where technical reports do not identify whether predicted effects are likely to be significant. In this regard, effective links back to the main text of the ES will be important in ensuring clear conclusions are reached.
The addition of these new topics could result in additional work in the EIA process. However, through the careful consideration of the ES’s scope and structure in relation to the specific project and study area affected, opportunities for streamlining can be identified. Whatever method is adopted, an appropriate approach, focusing on the likely significant effects relevant to the project, will contribute towards increasing the overall proportionality of ESs.
Anna Gillespie is an EIA consultant at RPS’s Oxford office.