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Environmental Impact Assessment

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An environmental impact assessment (EIA) is an assessment of the possible positive or negative impact that a proposed project may have on the environment, together consisting of the environmental, social and economic aspects.


The purpose of the assessment is to ensure that decision makers consider the ensuing environmental impacts when deciding whether to proceed with a project. The International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) defines an environmental impact assessment as “the process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social, and other relevant effects of development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made.”[1] EIAs are unique in that they do not require adherence to a predetermined environmental outcome, but rather they require decision makers to account for environmental values in their decisions and to justify those decisions in light of detailed environmental studies and public comments on the potential environmental impacts of the proposal.[2]

EIAs began to be used in the 1960s as part of a rational decision making process. It involved a technical evaluation that would lead to objective decision making. EIA was made legislation in the US in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) 1969. It has since evolved as it has been used increasingly in many countries around the world. As per Jay et al.(2006), EIA as it is practiced today, is being used as a decision aiding tool rather than decision making tool. There is growing dissent on the use of EIA as its influence on development decisions is limited and there is a view it is falling short of its full potential.There is a need for stronger foundation of EIA practice through training for practitioners, guidance on EIA practice and continuing research.[3]

EIA’ s have often been criticized for having too narrow spatial and temporal scope. At present no procedure has been specified for determining a system boundary for the assessment. The system boundary refers to ‘the spatial and temporal boundary of the proposal’s effects’. This boundary is determined by the applicant and the lead assessor, but in practice, almost all EIAs address the direct, on-site effects alone.[4]

However, as well as direct effects, developments cause a multitude of indirect effects through consumption of goods and services, production of building materials and machinery, additional land use for activities of various manufacturing and industrial services, mining of resources etc. The indirect effects of developments are often an order of magnitude higher than the direct effects assessed by EIA. Large proposals such as airports or ship yards cause wide ranging national as well as international environmental effects, which should be taken into consideration during the decision-making process.[5]

Broadening the scope of EIA can also benefit threatened species conservation. Instead of concentrating on the direct effects of a proposed project on its local environment some EIAs used a landscape approach which focused on much broader relationships between the entire population of a species in question. As a result, an alternative that would cause least amount of negative effects to the population of that species as a whole, rather than the local subpopulation, can be identified and recommended by EIA.[6]


There are various methods available to carry out EIAs, some are industry specific and some general methods:

• Industrial products – Product environmental life cycle analysis (LCA) is used for identifying and measuring the impact on the environment of industrial products. These EIAs consider technological activities used for various stages of the product: extraction of raw material for the product and for ancillary materials and equipment, through the production and use of the product, right up to the disposal of the product, the ancillary equipment and material.[7] • Genetically modified plants – There are specific methods available to perform EIAs of genetically modified plants. Some of the methods are GMP-RAM, INOVA etc.[8] • Fuzzy Arithmetic – EIA methods need specific parameters and variables to be measured to estimate values of impact indicators.

However many of the environment impact properties cannot be measured on a scale e.g. landscape quality, lifestyle quality, social acceptance etc. and moreover these indicators are very subjective. Thus to assess the impacts we may need to take the help of information from similar EIAs, expert criteria, sensitivity of affected population etc. To treat this information, which is generally inaccurate, systematically, fuzzy arithmetic and approximate reasoning methods can be utilised. This is called as a fuzzy logic approach.[9] At the end of the project, an EIA should be followed by an audit. An EIA audit evaluates the performance of an EIA by comparing actual impacts to those that were predicted. The main objective of these audits is to make future EIAs more valid and effective. The two main considerations are:

• scientific – to check the accuracy of predictions and explain errors. • management- to assess the success of mitigation in reducing impacts. Some people believe that audits be performed as a rigorous scientific testing of the null hypotheses. While some believe in a simpler approach where you compare what actually occurred against the predictions in the EIA document.[10]

After an EIA, the precautionary and polluter pays principles may be applied to prevent, limit, or require strict liability or insurance coverage to a project, based on its likely harms. Environmental impact assessments are sometimes controversial.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) of India has been in a great effort in Environmental Impact Assessment in India. The main laws in action are the Water Act(1974), the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act (1972), the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act (1981) and the Environment (Protection) Act (1986). The responsible body for this is the Central Pollution Control Board. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies need a significant amount of primary and secondary environmental data. The primary data are those which need to be collected in the field to define the status of the environment (like air quality data, water quality data etc.). The secondary data are those data which have been collected over the years and can be used to understand the existing environmental scenario of the study area. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies are conducted over a short period of time and therefore the understanding of the environmental trends, based on a few months of primary data, has limitations. Ideally, the primary data has to be considered along with the secondary data for complete understanding of the existing environmental status of the area. In many EIA studies, the secondary data needs could be as high as 80% of the total data requirement. EIC is the repository of one stop secondary data source for environmental impact assessment in India.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) experience in India indicates that the lack of timely availability of reliable and authentic environmental data has been a major bottle neck in achieving the full benefits of EIA. The environment being a multi-disciplinary subject, a multitude of agencies is involved in collection of environmental data. However, there is no single organization in India which tracks the data available amongst these agencies and makes it available in one place, in a form and manner required by practitioners in the field of environmental impact assessment in India. Further, the environmental data is not available in value added forms that can enhance the quality of the EIA. This in turn adversely affects the time and efforts required for conducting the environmental impact assessments (EIAs) by project proponents and also timely environmental clearances by the regulators. With this background, Environmental Information Centre (EIC) has been set up to serve as a professionally managed clearing house of environmental information that can be used by MoEF, project proponents, consultants, NGOs and other stakeholders involved in the process of environmental impact assessment in India. EIC caters to the need of creating and disseminating of organized environmental data for various developmental initiatives all over the country.

EIC stores data in GIS format and makes it available to all environmental impact assessment studies and to EIA stakeholders in a cost effective and timely manner.

Environmental Assessment (EA)

An Environmental Assessment (EA) is an environmental analysis prepared pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act to determine whether a federal action would significantly affect the environment and thus require a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The certified release of an Environmental Assessment results in either aFinding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) or an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which oversees the administration of NEPA, issued regulations for implementing the NEPA in 1979. Eccleston reports that the NEPA regulations barely mention preparation of EAs. This is because the EA was originally intended to be a simple document used in relatively rare instances where an agency was not sure if the potential significance of an action would be sufficient to trigger preparation of an EIS. But today, because EISs are so much longer and complicated to prepare, federal agencies are going to great effort to avoid preparing EISs by using EAs, even in cases where the use of EAs may be inappropriate. The ratio of EAs that are being issued compared to EISs is about 100 to 1.[29]

Likewise, even the preparation of an accurate Environmental Assessment (EA) is viewed today as an onerous burden by many entities responsible for the environmental review of a proposal. Federal agencies have responded by streamlining their regulations that implement NEPA environmental review, by defining categories of projects that by their well understood nature may be safely excluded from review under NEPA, and by drawing up lists of project types that have negligible material impact upon the environment and can thus be exempted.


The Environmental Assessment is a concise public document prepared by the federal action agency that serves to:

1. briefly provide sufficient evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an EIS or a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) 2. Demonstrate compliance with the act when no EIS is required 3. facilitate the preparation of a EIS when a FONSI cannot be demonstrated The Environmental Assessment includes a brief discussion of the purpose and need of the proposal and of its alternatives as required by NEPA 102(2)(E), and of the human environmental impacts resulting from and occurring to the proposed actions and alternatives considered practicable, plus a listing of studies conducted and agencies and stakeholders consulted to reach these conclusions. The action agency must approve an EA before it is made available to the public. The EA is made public through notices of availability by local, state, or regional clearing houses, often triggered by the purchase of a public notice advertisement in a newspaper of general circulation in the proposed activity area.


The structure of a generic Environmental Assessment is as follows:

1. Summary
2. Introduction
• Background
• Purpose and Need for Action
• Proposed Action
• Decision Framework
• Public Involvement
• Issues

3. Alternatives, including the Proposed Action
• Alternatives
• Mitigation Common to All Alternatives
• Comparison of Alternatives
4. Environmental Consequences
5. Consultation and Coordination


The EA becomes a draft public document when notice of it is published, usually in a newspaper of general circulation in the area affected by the proposal. There is a 15 day review period required for an Environmental Assessment (30 days if exceptional circumstances) while the document is made available for public commentary, and a similar time for any objection to improper process. Commenting on the Draft EA is typically done in writing or email, submitted to the lead action agency as published in the notice of availability. An EA does not require a public hearing for verbal comments. Following the mandated public comment period the lead action agency will respond to any comments received and certify either a FONSI or a Notice of Intent (NOI) to prepare a EIS in its public environmental review record. The preparation of an EIS then generates a similar but more lengthy, involved and expensive process.

Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)

A fuller treatment of the document and process known in the U. S. as an Environmental Impact Statement is currently found in a separate article.

The adequacy of an EIS can be challenged in federal court. Major proposed projects have been blocked because of an agency’s failure to prepare an acceptable EIS. One prominent example was the Westway landfill and highway development in and along the Hudson River in New York City.[30] Another prominent case involved the Sierra Club suing the Nevada Department of Transportation over its denial of Sierra Club’s request to issue a supplemental EIS addressing air emissions of particulate matter and hazardous air pollutants in the case of widening US Highway 95 through Las Vegas.[31] The case reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which led to construction on the highway being halted until the court’s final decision. The case was settled prior to the court’s final decision.

Several state governments that have adopted “little NEPAs,” state laws imposing EIS requirements for particular state actions. Some those state laws such as the California Environmental Quality Act refer to the required environmental impact study as an environmental impact report.[32]

These variety of state requirements are yielding voluminous data not just upon impacts of individual projects, but also to elucidate scientific areas that had not been sufficiently researched. For example, in a seemingly routine Environmental Impact Report for the city of Monterey, California, information came to light that led to the official federal endangered species listing of Hickman’s potentilla, a rare coastal wildflower.

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