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environmental impact assessment

  A process of systematically identifying and assessing anticipated environmental impacts prior to a proposed project, policy, programme or plan being implemented. The identification of significant negative impacts may prevent the proposal (which, in practice, is usually a project) from going ahead. However, more frequently it results in the modification of the original proposal, or the introduction of measures to ameliorate the anticipated negative environmental impacts. It is also possible for a proposal to generate positive environmental impacts, particularly if the site is already severely degraded, and these should also be considered in the process. Meredith (1995, p. 362) wrote that impact assessment (environmental, social and other forms) \'need consist only of two things: the commitment to forethought and some ability to foresee\'. This statement raises questions as to whether an EIA merely predicts changes, if the process of EIA is a key part of change through legitimation, or if it should be used as a tool to introduce progressive changes such as sustainable development.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was introduced in the US in 1969 under the National Environmental Policy Act (Kreske, 1996). It is now a legal requirement in many countries, provinces/states and sometimes at the level of individual cities. International institutions such as The World Bank and international aid agencies also require an EIA process on particular development proposals. Over time the coverage of assessments has broadened from just federal government departments to include provincial/state proposals and private development proposals, depending upon the legislation in a particular location. Wood (1995) provides a comprehensive comparison of EIA systems in six countries, plus the US state of California. EIA has also been adapted from environmental protection to include the idea of sustainable development, a concept that had not been created when EIA was initiated.

Thomas (1996) defined EIA as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) plus an Assessment Report. The terminology varies between countries, and often causes confusion. For example, in some places EIA is simply known as \'Impact Assessment\' because it is broader than a narrow definition of the physical environment. In other places it is known as Environmental Assessment (EA) because of the perceived negative connotations of the term \'impact\'. However, in the USA, an Environmental Assessment is a preliminary study undertaken within the EIA process to identify the likelihood of significant impacts, which then require the preparation of a full EIS (Burris and Canter, 1997).

The process of EIA has become standardized in many countries. Under some legislative frameworks, the EIS document may be required to address issues such as sustainable development, biodiversity, social impacts and economic considerations. There are also legal requirements for public participation, which may be limited to giving interested people a period of time to provide written comments on the EIS.

Environmental Impact Assessment is sometimes seen as an important process which prevents the worst aspects of proposals from being implemented; it does not necessarily guarantee high-quality development. In contrast, other people perceive the process to be a way of legitimizing controversial development proposals and in their view it does very little to maintain environmental quality. They argue that many of the key decisions have already been taken at the policy level, and that the individual character of EIA often fails to consider the cumulative impacts of each development. These concerns are partly being addressed by Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) at the policy and programme level, and Cumulative Impact Assessment (CIA) over longer time-horizons than those of particular projects. (PM)

References Burris, R. and Canter, L. 1997: Cumulative impacts are not properly addressed in Environmental Assessments. Environmental Impact Assessment Review 17: 5-18. Kreske, D. 1996: Environmental impact statements: a practical guide for agencies, citizens and consultants. New York: John Wiley and Sons. Meredith, T. 1995: Assessing Environmental Impacts in Canada. In B. Mitchell, ed., Resource and environmental management in Canada: addressing conflict and uncertainty. New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 360-83. Thomas, I. 1996: Environmental impact assessment in Australia: theory and practice. Sydney: The Federation Press. Wood, C. 1995: Environmental impact assessment: a comparative review: Harlow: Longman.



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