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Understanding EIA

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The EIA process begins from the very start of a project. Once a developer has identified a need and assessed all the possible alternatives of project design and sites to select a preferred alternative , two important questions must be asked: 'What will be the effects of this development on the environment?

Are those effects significant? Answering this question is a process known as screening and can be an essential first step into a formal EIA. The EIA process is, it must be stressed, iterative. This is demonstrated at this early stage of screening where the requirement for a formal EIA and its associated cost implications can lead the developer to reassess the project design with a view to reducing the significant impacts to a level where an EIA is not legally required Nielsen et al Where it is decided that a formal EIA is required, the next stage is to define the issues that need to be addressed, that is, those impacts that have a significant effect on the environment.

This is known as scoping and is essential for focusing the available resources on the relevant issues. Following on from scoping, it is essential to collect all relevant information on the current status of the environment.

Environmental impact assessment in the People's Republic of China

This study is referred to as a baseline study as it provides a baseline against which change due to a development can be measured. Once the baseline study information is available, the important task of impact prediction can begin. Impact prediction involves forecasting the likely changes in the environment that will occur as a result of the development.

The next phase involves the assessment of the identified impacts - impact assessment. This requires interpretation of the importance or significance of the impacts to provide a conclusion, which can ultimately be used by decision-makers in determining the fate of the project application.

Frequently, the assessment of impacts will reveal damaging effects upon the environment. These may be alleviated by mitigation measures. Mitigation involves taking measures to reduce or remove environmental impacts and it can be seen that the iterative nature of the EIA process is well demonstrated here. For example, successful design of mitigation measures could possibly result in the removal of all significant impacts; hence a new screening exercise would reveal that there might have been no need to carry out a formal EIA had the mitigation measures been included from the start.

The outcome of an EIA is usually a formal document, known as an environmental impact statement EIS , which sets out factual information relating to the development, and all the information gathered relating to screening, scoping, baseline study, impact prediction and assessment, mitigation, and monitoring measures. It is quite common that a requirement of an EIS is that it also produces a non-technical summary.

This is a summary of the information contained within the EIS, presented in a concise non-technical format, for those who do not wish to read the detailed documents. This is the body with the authority to permit or refuse development applications. The competent authorities are often in a position of having very little time to make a decision and have a detailed and lengthy EIS to read through which may contain errors, omissions, and developer bias. It is essential, therefore, that they review the document.