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A flexible approach to environmental impact assessments

Resilience is a term environmental professionals have been using for a long time, and today it has become part of the language of business. It refers to an ecosystem’s capacity to recover from disturbance or withstand ongoing pressure. WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Technical Executive for Environmental Impact Assessment Amanda O’Kane explores the process of building resilience into the environmental impact assessment process for large, complex projects.

 

For proponents of large, complex infrastructure projects, the concept of resilience takes on particular significance when it comes to environmental impact. Today, the complexity of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process calls for significant time and effort to identify, address and mitigate issues. Meanwhile owners and clients, faced with the reality of accelerating market change and pressure on capital spending, are looking for the most efficient path to market.

As leading environment and engineering consultants, one of our overriding objectives is to fast-track the time to market by solving key project EIA challenges early. We aim to do this while also ensuring a robust technical assessment that will provide confidence to the regulator and assessors and, importantly, a level of confidence for the community. 

The framework of an EIA remains constant for any complex infrastructure development. Issues revolve around the project’s potential impacts on the environment and the provision of workable mitigation and management tools. Meanwhile, while the scale of the assessment may change, the legislation pathway to conditions may also remain the same. 

The objective of any focussed EIA process is to avoid the pitfall of becoming side-tracked by evolving EIA trends, which may demand more onerous assessment and that may not be relevant to the specific impact assessment.

Before the project is introduced to the public, the planning phase must focus on defining the environmental values to engage and influence engineering decisions.

As environment consultants to proponents of large complex infrastructure projects, our role is to ensure:

  • Environment is incorporated early in the engineering design process, to promote early measures for avoiding adverse impacts to be identified and to provide stakeholders with informed project outcomes.

  • Consistency in key personnel, communication and project description is maintained across the life of the project.

  • The first impression of a project to the public is given confidently, with robust methodology already in place and key constraints identified, and with an initial understanding of residual impact – this all requires significant ‘behind the scenes’planning to inform the early risk evaluation.

  • We respect the end product but remain flexible enough to know the path to get there will change – the aim is to pre-empt this change and plan for it before the project goes public.

  • We engage appropriate experts for early data commitment or to identify the constraints that influence the scale of the impact assessment and data collation sustainability in business and response time to facilitate planning for change – as a large organisation we have the ability to provide teams and individuals that can quickly respond to change.

  • We understand the environmental culture of current and opposition governments that may dictate future EIA trends, such as social impact and groundwater assessments.


A project spanning greater than 12 months of environmental approvals will certainly be influenced by market changes and government trends. To build resilience in the EIA process, the project focus should always be on what can be controlled, while planning for change. 

For complex approvals in a business environment that require a short delivery time to market, it is vital to reduce the EIA complexity by early control of constraints and to ensure consistent and informed stakeholder messaging. 

It is also important to allocate the project deliverables into smaller components, focussing on what can be controlled for the life of the project, and identifying what will be influenced by market changes and social influences. This promotes timely responses to the challenges arising across the life of the EIA, rather than these challenges prolonging project timeframes and costs. 

Like a resilient ecosystem, a resilient EIA process is one that recovers quickly from disturbances, such as market changes, and withstands ongoing pressure because it has been well planned from the start. 

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