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NATURAL CONCERNS

Environmental Impact Assessment - threat or opportunity?

As anyone who has invested in Slovakia can testify, there are many bureaucratic hurdles to overcome before starting a business here. One of these is the need to obtain a building permit prior to any construction work. But for some types of activity or facility, a building permit can only be issued after a comprehensive assessment of the project's environmental impacts has been performed.


Tim Young

As anyone who has invested in Slovakia can testify, there are many bureaucratic hurdles to overcome before starting a business here. One of these is the need to obtain a building permit prior to any construction work. But for some types of activity or facility, a building permit can only be issued after a comprehensive assessment of the project's environmental impacts has been performed.

Environmental Impact Assessment, or EIA, is prescribed in EU member states by legislation dating from 1985 and amended in 1997. The Slovak EIA law was passed in 1994 and was amended in line with an updated EU directive last year, resulting in some changes to the lists of activities subject to assessment - some new activities were added and some of the thresholds above which EIA is required were altered.

The EIA law prescribes a process of comprehensive expert assessment and public consultation in relation to the environmental impacts of installations not only during their construction and operational phases, but also after their shutdown, as in the case of quarrying, for instance.

The purpose of the process is to choose the best practicable environmental option for the project - based on a number of technical alternatives or locations - as well as to identify measures to avoid or mitigate negative environmental impacts.

The investor therefore has to prepare a study that presents at least two different technical options, as well as a baseline 'zero option' (in which the proposed project is not realised at all).

Activities subject to EIA are divided into two groups, A and B, according to various criteria: volume of production in tonnes per year, for instance, the length of a new road or railway, or the area of a quarry. Both the construction of new facilities or plans that will significantly change an existing installation can require an EIA.

Activities in group A need to be assessed through the full EIA process. Activities in group B first go through a screening process, in which the Ministry of Environment, in cooperation with other bodies such as the Ministry of Economy or local municipality - and in response to representations from the public - decides whether the whole EIA procedure needs to be applied to the proposed project or not.

Public opinion plays a very important role in the whole process, and particular attention has to be paid to communication with the public in order to avoid problems and delays in the implementation of a project.

After this initial assessment by the Ministry of Environment, the investor is told what will be required in the main EIA report. Once this report has been prepared, and before it is submitted to the Ministry, relevant institutions and the public have the right to present their views in public hearings or in written comments to the Ministry.

An independent expert hired by the Ministry then evaluates the final report, together with these comments on it, and prepares the final assessment, together with a draft official statement on the project.

On the basis of these documents the Ministry then issues a final statement, in which it either recommends or does not recommend the granting of a final building permit to the investor, and any conditions that should apply. A building permit cannot be issued without obtaining this final statement.

This whole process usually lasts 1-2 years but can last five and more, depending on how many times the Ministry returns the documentation to the investor for further work, on the nature of any monitoring or observations required for the report, and on the nature and strength of public opposition or support for the proposed project.

Because of the breadth and complexity of the issues involved in an EIA, investors usually prefer hiring consultants for the job to doing it in-house. Consultants can help an investor in:

* deciding on the scope of the preliminary documentation and EIA report

* preparation of documentation for the initial screening

* carrying out the EIA and preparation of the final report

* communication with regulators, ministries and other relevant bodies

* organisation of public participation in the whole process

* performing or supervision of post-project monitoring of environmental impacts and interpretation of the monitored data (as may be required in some cases).

By taking the EIA process seriously - and starting with it as early as possible in the project lifecycle - investors can minimise the business risks associated with unexpected environmental costs at a planned facility, or public opposition.

The EIA process can then be an opportunity for investors to promote a 'green' image and to start out on the right footing by reassuring the public that they take environmental protection seriously too.

This article is part of a monthly column providing a concise, up-to-date and informative insight into key environmental issues for the business community in Slovakia.

Tim Young heads AEA Technology's Bratislava office. He can be reached at tim.young@aeat.com

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