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The definition of an environmental impact assessment (EIA), or environmental site assessment is an assessment of the risks that a development poses to the environment. When the tool was first introduced, the environment was defined as the ecology of the surroundings; i.e. the landscape and the plants and animals living there. Since then, the man-made infrastructure and the human population in the area are also included. Environmental impact assessment is mainly popular with regulators, who welcome it as an objective way of judging levels of pollution. It is mainly applied to development projects, but also for the operational phase of factories, power plants and other industrial developments.

Environmental impact assessment hasn’t changed since its introduction. The significance of environmental issues is established by plotting the probability and severity of an adverse effect/event onto a risk classification chart. Mild consequence / low probability risks are generally acceptable, whereas severe consequence / high probability risks are not. Medium risks need to be reduced as far as reasonably possible. Not the presence of a hazard is deemed significant, but the likelihood that such a hazard translates into undesirable effects.

Popular as it may be, you may have noticed that the tool has a downside. It survives for its objectivity, but it isn’t as objective as it is claimed. Perhaps people confuse mathematical simplicity with objectivity. My first concern is that there is no definition of significance and which renders the tool subjective instead of objective. My second concern is that the likelihood scale makes little sense to stakeholders who are concerned. Seeing their concern being marginalized only infuriates them further. My final concern is that the significance of cumulative impacts cannot be determined with this method (while most impacts are).

Traditional EIA’s are lost public relations opportunities. Their message of “this is what we expose you to” is rather negative and fails to do justice to the societal benefits of a project. By focusing on impact reduction, each traditional EIA reaffirms the notion that industries are polluting and increases people’s motivation to ban rather than welcome any new development projects. This will increase the costs of preparing EIA’s, increase the companies’ PR costs and increase the cost of mitigation.

It is time to go back to basics. Remember that the main purpose of environmental risk assessment is to increase the acceptability of the risk. Reducing levels of pollution is not of secondary importance, but not the primary objective. Whether something is acceptable depends on a great number of factors, of which pollution is only one. It comes down to weighing interests and making informed decisions.

The biggest challenge is to overcome the polarization that can occur when weighing interests. Local residents organize themselves increasingly against industrial and other large-scale projects and the associated emotions make it challenging to have objective and factual conversations. In these situations a depolarizing approach to environmental assessment is required. These are available.

A short conversation may be long enough for giving adequate advice on environmental risk assessment, but usually it takes more time. A single conversation is sufficient to confirm that you have already taken the right steps or to conclude that my advice has no added value for your organization. Otherwise, a short conversation could be the basis for a follow-up meeting.

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