Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rehabilitation of EIA System a Priority

Rehabilitation of EIA System a Priority 
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
September 9, 2010

Earlier this year the Supreme Administrative Court nullified the Taichung Science Park Phase 3 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). This was the first time a judicial entity has ever nullified an EIA. A halt on Phase 4 development followed. White Dolphin conservation efforts led to controversy over the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical EIA. Repeated fires at the Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant made Phase 5 plant expansion EIA approval many times more difficult. The EIA system suddenly came under criticism as utterly useless. Developers criticized it for increasing investment risk. Environmental groups criticized it for lopsidedly favoring economic development. The credibility of government policy-makers and environmental protection agencies hit rock bottom. As a result, restructuring of the EIA system is imminent.

It has been 80 years since the Environmental Assessment Act was implemented. During much of that time economic development trumped all else, even as environmental hazards proliferated. In all fairness, environmental protection agencies, by invoking the magical power of the EIA, succeeded in blocking many environmentally destructive projects. The EIA's current predicament is due in part to changes in the larger environment. These have revealed serious defects in the EIA's original design. Another reason however, is political interference.

For the past half year, much criticism has been directed at the EIA system, at its veto power, and at the Central Committee's black box operations. These have led to technical and administrative problems which must be addressed. But technical issues are of secondary importance to restoring the credibility of the EIA system. The real reason for loss of confidence in the EIA is insufficient will and insufficient understanding on the part of upper echelon policy makers. These upper echelon policy makers should amend the technical aspects of the law. But they should also contemplate the root of the problem.

The ruling administration hopes to strengthen the economy. It hopes to improve people's lives. In its hurry to establish a glowing political record, it often promotes some "project essential to the nation" that "simply must go ahead." Partisan politics forces officials to compress their policy formulation process, administrative review process, or even "guide" controversial projects through a minefield. This leads to insufficient EIA transparency, insufficient citizen participation, and delayed controversy.

Once the root cause of the EIA crisis has been understood, rebuilding trust in the EIA requires addresssing both the human dimension and the legal dimension. Take the human dimension first. Policy makers may be convinced that a particular development project will promote economic growth and the public welfare. But they should nevertheless respect the spirit of bottom up community involvement. They should communicate with the public, seek public support, rather than pressure administrative authorities, demanding that they approve their projects ahead of certain deadlines.

They should not seek loopholes in the multi-layered regulatory mechanism for national infrastructure projects. For example, the Suhua Highway recently triggered a major controversy. Authorities bypassed comprehensive land planning and regional planning requirements. They went ahead with a transportation project that was not a part of national land use plans. Another example is the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project. Senior government officials repeatedly offered predictions about when the EIA would be completed. By doing so, they could blame the EIA mechanism in the event the project failed to pass in time.

Only by reducing human intervention, can we return to the original intent of the EIA, namely, "To prevent and reduce development that brings adverse environmental impacts." Only then can one rebuid confidence in the EIA system. What matters is not technical fixes for individual projects, but eliminating the problem at its source.

First, the most compelling criticism of the EIA Act is that projects are submitted for approval only after they have already been settled upon. This disregards the need for prevention, early warning, and filtering. The Executive Yuan has an understanding that it will "pre-assess" certain projects, giving them "individual EIA assessments." Before major public policies and major investment and development projects are finalized, they will require "pre-assessment." Developers should invite advance participation from all sectors of the public. One requirement for alternative plans should be "zero development." Only after a project passes pre-assessment and is confirmed as feasible, will it be allowed to undergo the actual EIA process. It should not be allowed to undergo the EIA process in an attempt to bulldoze its way through.

Next, a third party management system should be established for EIA reports, as soon as possible. Currently EIA reports are written by consultants hired by developers. Consultants' reports must conform to developers' wishes. If they do not, consultants may not even receive ghostwriting fees. Therefore a fair and just "EIA management company" system must be established. Developers will be required to pay a specified percentage in EIA report writing fees to EIA management companies. EIA management companies will hire EIA consultants to produce EIA reports. Funds will be appropriated in accordance with the progress of the project. This will avoid the phenomenon of the developer holding the EIA report hostage by witholding report writing fees.

The EIA management company system will require certain preconditions. The authority in charge shall periodically evaluate EIA consultant firms for integrity. Do they put environmental science and environmental justice on an equal footing? Are they fulfilling the role of an environmental early warning system? Are their EIA reports rigorous? Do they increase the efficiency of the EIA process? The EPA should subject these firms to public evaluation. Only then can the EIA process be restored to its transcendent status. Only then can its lost credibility be salvaged.

The Environmental Assessment Act must be rehabilitated from its roots. Upper echelon policy makers must make fundamental changes. The two-stage EIA process is widely criticized as too time-consuming, Should the veto be abolished? How should Central Committee members be recruited? All these problems can be solved. The EIA system can then uphold environmental justice, and help investors to develop environmentally sound projects.

2010.09.09 02:33 am












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