Responding to the shorter timeframes for environmental impact assessments (EIAs) introduced last year, the Durban office of SRK Consulting (SA) has developed an extensive pre-EIA screening approach to turn this challenge into an opportunity. Using the process, SRK can reduce the frustration inherent in tight deadlines being applied to dynamic planning.
According to SRK senior environmental scientist Philippa Burmeister, this screening will allow clients to understand a project’s environmental implications before launching into the formal EIA process, avoiding significant environmental impacts by accounting for them in the design and planning phases.
“This allows for the assessment of alternatives – such as project location, layout, technology, resource provision and access – and the integration of preliminary management measures into the design and project feasibility,” said Burmeister.
“The pre-EIA screening offers an opportunity to identify potential fatal flaws at prefeasibility and feasibility stages of a project, and to go into the EIA process with a clearer understanding of project layout, design, environmental constraints and controls, and the associated costs,” she said.
The screening process also offers the prospect for capacity-building and skills transfer.
“SRK has identified the chance of creating working groups for specific aspects of the environment, for example in water-related issues,” she said. “Each working group would include an expert, an emerging professional, authority representatives and potentially even key stakeholders, improving communication and transferring skills required in later phases of the project,” she said.
Burmeister argues that the outcome of the new time constraint in the formal process provides clients with the opening to incorporate environmental considerations into their project feasibility assessment – which is independent of regulatory requirements.
“While the screening process may be perceived as yet another environmental requirement, it could in fact streamline the EIA process and reduce overall costs and delays,” she said.
To further enhance the benefit of the early screening investigations, SRK uses a combination of geographic information systems (GIS), mobile-mapping and data visualisation to store and present the significant amounts of information generated. The company has already started integrating this approach into their environmental and construction projects with great success.
“Users appreciate that information can be viewed via the internet in real time as it is gathered in the field without the need for additional hardware, as data is captured on smart phones or tablets. This approach has almost eliminated the need for office-based data capture after undertaking field work,” said Keagan Allan, a senior scientist with SRK who specialises in GIS. “While there will always be the need for the review and verification of information, this process has significantly reduced the time from when spatial information is collected to when it is available for use in project planning,” he said.
“We believe that the investigations can be enhanced if the data gathered is captured and represented spatially through the identification of environmental opportunities and constraints,” commented Burmeister.
She adds that early screening level consultations with stakeholders prior to the formal EIA process is also advantageous, as stakeholder needs can be anticipated and the scoping process can take place upon a sound basis.
“Engagement with key stakeholders and consulting with them early on will certainly help develop the relationships that form a basis for an organisation’s social license to operate,” said Burmeister. “If this approach is not followed or not properly executed, there is a high risk of the process failing at the first formal engagement with stakeholders.”
The strict permitting timeframes that the new National Environmental Management Act (NEMA): EIA Regulations place on environmental assessment practitioners (EAPs) and applicants no longer allow the project description to evolve and adapt, based on issues raised during the EIA process, according to Burmeister.
She said this means that a thorough understanding of likely environmental impacts – and how to manage them – needs to be obtained even before embarking on the formal EIA process.
“Once the formal process starts, there now isn’t time to materially change the process description and complete a thorough assessment of the impacts of a project within the stipulated timeframes,” she said.
“This is further complicated by the level of detail required for applications – such as water use and atmospheric emissions licences – that now need to be submitted concurrently with the EIA documentation.”
The new legislated EIA timeframes led SRK to develop an innovative approach to turn the challenges of the EIA process into opportunities. The Durban team have conducted EIA’s and prepared associated Water Use, Waste and Air Emissions license applications for numerous industries in Kwa Zulu Natal and further abroad. Philippa Burmeister, who holds an Honours degree in Environmental Science, has also worked on a number of strategic projects including Strategic Environmental Assessments, Environmental Management Frameworks and Environmental Management systems for industry and government. The team has made use of the strategic approach and their experience with large EIA’s in developing the proposed screening approach.
About SRK Consulting www.srk.co.za
SRK Consulting is a leader in natural resource and development solutions, providing independent technical advice and services through over 50 offices in 22 countries, on six continents. With an African presence in Angola and Cameroon, and practices in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, the global group employs more than 1,500 staff in a range of engineering, scientific, environmental and social disciplines.