Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The application of ecology in Environmental Impact Assessment and development mitigation

By Paul Michael Reynolds

1.0  Introduction

During the 1960’s interest in the environment began to increase and has continued to do so ever since with particular attention being paid to the negative impact that human society has on the global environment (Welford 1995). It is with this in mind that we shall take a brief look at what Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is and the history of Environmental Impact assessment.

1.1 EIA origin and legal implementation

EIA is a procedure which essentially gathers information about the potential environmental impacts of a particular planned development and aims to inform the relevant authorities/bodies and public about these so that an informed decision can be made as to granting permission for the proposed development (Carroll and Turpin 2002).
The requirement to have an EIA in the UK for projects that require planning permission (under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 however other projects not under this Act are also applicable i.e Nuclear Power Stations) came from the 1985 European Union Directive on the Assessment of certain Public and Private projects on the environment (Directive 85/337/EEC which shall be referred to from now as the EIA Directive) which was amended in 1997 (Directive 97/11/EC) and 2003 (Directive 2003/35/EC) (Circular 02/99: Environmental impact assessment).
The EIA directive lists two schedules where the regulations of the directive apply-
·         Schedule I projects for which an EIA is always needed i.e Nuclear Power stations
·         Schedule II projects for which an EIA may be needed depending on whether or not the project is likely to have significant environmental impacts.
These two schedules are used as a means to gauging whether or not a project by law will require an EIA. (DCLG 2006)
It is important to note that an EIA does not determine whether or not planning permission is granted but rather seeks to inform the decision makers of the relevant authority as to the environmental impacts of the proposed project so that they can then make a more informed decision in regards to granting planning permission (Carroll and Turpin 2002).

1.2 The EIA Process

The diagram below summarises the EIA process from the initial screening to the post development auditing.
Diagram Summarising the EIA Process
Figure 1.0 the EIA Process (Harmer 2005)

Although this is the general process for EIA and encompasses all of the processes linked to an EIA it is up to the relevant planning authority as to the exact layout of the EIA, which processes are to be completed and when, including the level of public consultation and participation (Lawrence 2003).
The initial screening process is the stage in which the planning authority determines whether or not an EIA will be necessary both legally and or in the public interest. It is important to note at this point that public participation and consultation is desirable at each stage of the EIA so to establish potential problems early on both with public support and potential input from the public in regards to the proposed development (Glasson et al 2005). Scoping is normally carried out by environmental/ecological consultants and is defined by the European Commission Environmental Resources Management guidance literature as “…the process of determining the content and extent of matters that should be covered in the environmental information to be submitted to a competent authority or other decision making body” (ERM 2001). The ecological consultant can swiftly and accurately assess an area briefly to compare existing records of a site for accuracy or to validate features on a map or indeed if necessary carry out field surveys on the site. (Morris 2009) This will enable them to gain an idea of potential impacts to the site and surrounding area before any major decisions are made hence why it is useful for an EIA when required to be completed early on in the developers planning schedule as it may turn out as a result of the initial scoping and subsequent surveying that the site of interest is going to require very expensive mitigation or is not a suitable location and thus will not be granted planning permission.
Consideration of Alternatives is essentially the process where by alternative sites may be selected or briefly inspected to see if they are more suitable. The baseline environment is the environment as it would be without the proposed development and is used as a means to assess the impacts i.e an area of grassland in 2013 without a proposed car park versus the area with the car park taking into account all environmental considerations etc (IEEM 2006). The prediction of impacts comes after the description of the baseline environment as reasoned above so the impacts on the environmental resources can be matched against the baseline environment and as the name suggests is the predicted outcome for the impacts as a result of the development.
The evaluation of the significance of the impacts is carried out by ecological consultants (discussed later) and is the process by which impacts are assessed to rank their significance for the site. Mitigation measures are then outlined as a way to counter the impacts assessed in the previous stage and written up into the Environmental statement which is then reviewed and handed over to the relevant planning authority so that a decision can be made. However post the decision being made (and planning permission granted) the site is monitored to ensure that the developer sticks to the pre-agreed mitigation and also to ensure that the mitigation measures outlined are actually effective. Ultimately everything is handed over to the planning authority and the EIA goes towards influencing the decision as to whether or not the project will be granted planning permission and under what terms (if any) are to be agreed.

2.0  Ecological Consultants and EIA

Ecological consultants play a key role in the EIA process at multiple stages as they are responsible primarily for the Ecological Impact Assessment (EcIA) whereby impacts upon ecology as a result of a proposed development are assessed. This means that ecological consultants can take part in the entire EIA process from the initial project design to screening, scoping, impact assessment, evolution of project design and mitigation to the final follow up and monitoring (post decision monitoring and auditing). The EcIA is used as a means of identifying, predicting and evaluating the ecological impacts to a proposed development taking place from a local to regional level (Treweek 1999). Although the processes of EIA were briefly outlined earlier in section 1.2 we can now look at that them in more detail with regards to the role of the ecological consultant at each stage. Screening as discussed earlier is essentially the process by which a project is assessed under the EIA regulations to see if an EIA is necessary the ecological consultant may play a role if a formal screening opinion is sought for by the developer or relevant authority to assess a projects potential for ecological impact (IEEM 2006).  The ecological consultant plays a key role in scoping for this process requires the trained personal in the form of both ecological and environmental consultants. It is at this stage that the key ecological issues are discussed along with any survey plans etc so that they can be incorporated into the projects plans and due to changing legislation within the UK (and the EU) there is a growing requirement for projects to take into consideration biodiversity in a positive sense rather than just avoiding the impacts (IEEM 2006) ergo the use of ecological consultants at this stage allows more dialogue with the developer to allow them to take into account these issues and attempt to incorporate them into the design so to meet local, regional and national policies thus increasing the likelihood of the project being granted permission (a benefit from the developers point of view) and of course being of benefit to biodiversity in the long run. The ecological consultant will be required to gather information from the projects designers regarding the project so they can begin to predict potential impacts upon the local ecology such as the size of the project, project life time, biodiversity enhancing activities/designs etc. The results of the scoping process are often put into a report known as an EcIA report or the Environmental Statement (ES) (IEEM 2006). By the end of the scoping process the ecological consultants/relevant consultants should be able to predict more accurately potential impacts from the site and have concluded what further surveys and studies will be needed (IEEM 2006). As the EIA process is more cyclical than a clear cut linear process (Harmer 2005) it is important to note here that as more information becomes available it can be fed back into the scoping process and EcIA reports/ES.

The ecological consultant plays a key role in both the Impact Assessment stage of EIA as well as the assigning of values to what is actually found within the proposed site. It is of course essential to be aware of the ecological value of a site (as well as other values such as a socio-economic etc) so that the impact assessment can be carried out properly.
The ecological consultants will also be responsible for carrying out the various surveys both habitat and species surveys which will be necessary to accurately assess the ecological value of the site. Surveys such as a Phase-1 Habitat survey and extended surveys such as species specific surveys like Badger Surveys, Bat Surveys etc will also be carried out so that appropriate mitigation can take place as a result of legal/legislative issues i.e presence of badger setts under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 means that interfering with setts (i.e during construction blocking or damaging them) would be breaking the law thus appropriate mitigation would involve a licensed ecologist moving the setts to another location etc.

3.0  Mitigation

Section IV of Part I of the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) (England and Wales) Regulations 1999 (the EIA Regulations) sets out the requirement for “a description of measures envisaged to prevent, reduce and, where possible, offset any significant adverse effects on the environment” to be presented in the ES (DETR 1997) ergo mitigation is required by both UK and EU legislation (the UK legislation being based on the requirement from the EIA directive). There are five key components to the process of mitigation which are termed “The Mitigation Hierarchy” (DCLG 2006) and are set out as follows-
1-      Avoidance
2-      Reduction
3-      Compensation
4-      Remediation
5-      Enhancement

“The Mitigation Hierarchy” essentially summarises the entire mitigation process as each mitigation point is a key principle of mitigation. Avoidance is the initial and key point to mitigation which is achieved in the earliest part of the project whereby the design of the project can be altered to accommodate any potential impacts or indeed change the location of the proposed site. For example if the run off from a road is likely to flow into a nearby water course and thus result in pollution of said watercourse then a drainage system can be incorporated into the design to avoid this particular negative impact. Reduction refers to reducing the negative impacts which cannot be avoided. Compensation is the process by which impacts that can neither be reduced or avoided are offset elsewhere for example the draining of a pond on the project site can be compensated by creating another pond elsewhere or indeed multiple ponds as is the rule of thumb for such measures. A real world example of compensation mitigation is present from an assessment carried out by Ecology Consultancy Ltd (ECL) commissioned by Indigo Planning Limited in 2007 for the creation of a housing site that was deemed to impact upon the wildlife of the locality and result in the loss of an above average species diverse grassland area. The compensation mitigation proposal was to plant a wildflower meadow in response as this would also act as an enhancement measure to increase biodiversity (Ecological Consultancy 2007).  Remediation is similar to reduction in so much as where negative impacts cannot be avoided they are managed in such a way as to reduce their influence for example should a project result in the increased growth of species poor grassland through increased fertilizer a remediation mitigation could be allowing for a grazing management plan to be set up to help ensure greater species diversity. Enhancement is as the name suggests the part of the process whereby the project is changed in someway to increase the positive effect upon the site for example the addition of green roofs and non sealed surfaces would enhance a buildings biodiversity value and thus be an enhancement mitigation measure (DCLG 2006).

4.0 Does EIA deliver a good result for biodiversity?

EIA in theory sets out a framework to ensure that the natural (and anthropogenic)  environment is taken into consideration at each step of the planning process from initial design to the planning decision which at an initial glance may appear as a good result for biodiversity in general however being that the EIA Directive does not set out a clear and rigorous methodology for EIA using a scientific approach (Lawrence 2003) there are significant variations (Harmer 2005) between various authorities methods for delivering an EIA and the degree to which it is carried out not just within the UK but around the world with different countries using different methodologies (Lawrence 2003). On one hand providing the EIA is carried out effectively and the planning authority pays proper attention to the results and insists upon the right mitigation measures being fulfilled along with the fulfilment of enhancing biodiversity measures then EIA in practice ensures a better result for biodiversity than had there been no EIA at all however as mentioned above due to the nature of EIA and the multitude of practices and interpretations the opposite can also be true whereby appropriate mitigation is overlooked and a proposal given the go ahead based upon other requirements such as socio-economic benefits as the enhancement of biodiversity although desirable is not a legal requirement for an EIA. Although EIA legislation is routinely reviewed and the guidance updated for it to be truly classed as delivering a good result for biodiversity as a general rule, then the enhancement of projects to ensure an increase in benefit for biodiversity should become a mandatory requirement for all projects requiring planning permission rather than it merely being a desirable easily overlooked aspect of a project more focussed on reducing the negative impacts than increasing the potential for positive impacts.

See below a video by The E.N.i.M.S. ecology team demonstrating part of what could take place in an EIA for a given area.

Carroll, B. and Turpin, T. (2002) Environmental Impact Assessment: A Practical Guide for Planners, Developers and Communities, Thomas Telford, London

Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).1999. Circular: Environmental impact assessment.(Circ 02/99) London HMSO

Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), 2006.Environmental Impact Assessment: A guide to procedures.[ Good practice and guidance][Online] Available at < http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/planningandbuilding/pdf/151087.pdf >
[Accessed 07/01/2011]

DETR, 1997. Mitigation Measures in the Environmental Statements.  Department
for the Environment Transport and the Regions, TSO, London

Ecology Consultancy., (2007) Barley House, Phase 1 Habitat Survey and Protected Species Assessment. [Online] Available at- <http://www.crawley.gov.uk/stellent/groups/public/documents/plappother/int138927.pdf>

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