Innovations in EIA

During the second week of my internship I was incredibly lucky to be invited to accompany my supervisor to a World Bank/IAIA conference.  The “Innovations in EIA” Conference was a staggering example of putting theory into practice.  The purpose was for many different stakeholders to share their experiences, new technology, and policy recommendations for improving the environmental impact assessment process in developing nations.  My supervisor spoke on behalf of the EPA’s International Affairs Office.  There were also representatives from the World Bank, the Millenium Challenge Corporation, the Bureau of Land Management and the Inter-American Development Bank among others.

Many of the stakeholders found that there were serious deficiencies in monitoring and implementation in all countries.  My supervisor highlighted common problems such as inadequate detail in development proposals and mitigation plans.  Oversights also frequently led to missed alternatives that could have avoided adverse environmental impacts.  In addition, the lack of quantitative performance standards and commitment language in the EIAs contributed to the lack of enforcement.  Most importantly, the lack of enforcement authority and institutional responsibility for enforcement were a serious barrier to successful implementation of the EIA process.  These problems signaled the need for additional resources in the form of expert training, finances, and institutional support.  In addition, the countries needed clear models of expectations and penalties for noncompliance.

There was also consensus that one of the biggest problems in the EIA process was the lack of public participation in all stages of large developments.  It was common for project proponents to skip publication of their development altogether.  There was also an issue with the effect of development projects on illiterate populations or people without access to newspapers or government websites.  Considerations would have to be made to ensure that affected populations were informed in advance of a project proposal.  Further along in the EIA process, many countries offered a very short window for public comment, or gave no opportunity at all.  This oversight runs counter to the spirit and the law of the EIA process.  Public participation is crucial to maintaining the rights of local populations who may bear the brunt of environmental and cultural upheaval resulting from the development.  Again, models were discussed to clearly articulate the importance of public participation and strict penalties for noncompliance.

It was striking to recognize the similar problems all of the stakeholders experienced in implementing EIA requirements.  The sharing of this information and brainstorming for solutions transcended pure policy discussion and focused on successful case studies and technology sharing.

In particular, I was thrilled to learn about a relatively new technology called NEPAassist.  This GIS-based program is incredibly helpful in site selection for new development projects.  In addition to revealing information that may not be gained by a site visit, NEPAassist also saves scarce resources for countries that do not have the staff or money to spend visiting various sites.  NEPAassist uses GIS programs to layer information about a potential building site.  The user may access geographical features, environmental features, ecosystem services, archaeological sites alongside social and demographic data.  All of this information provides a clear picture of a proposed development site and can save considerable time and resources in eliminating sites that are problematic.  The EPA and other international institutions are using NEPAassist all over the world and are training individuals in host countries to use the software.  Hopefully it will make an impact on the success and implementation of the EIA process.

The Innovations in EIA Conference was a great example of varied international developers, environmental and financial institutions trying to find practical solutions to common problems encountered in implementing environmental laws abroad.