Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is defined as a systematic process which recognises, predicts and evaluates the possible positive and negative economic, biophysical and social influences of any suggested project (Keatimilwe & Ashton, 2005). The purpose of an EIA is to inform decision-makers of the perceived environmental impacts of the proposed projects by providing objective and relevant information concerning the environment for them to make informed decisions and help guide sustainable development (Keatimilwe & Ashton, 2005).
Specialists are a crucial component in the EIA process with regard to ensuring the effectiveness of an EIA and the growing standard of practice in developed EIA systems (Wood, 1999). A Specialist is defined by the National Environmental Management Act (Act no. 107 of 1998) [NEMA] as “a person that is generally recognised within the scientific community as having the capability of undertaking, in conformance with generally recognised scientific principles, specialist studies or preparing specialist reports, including due diligence studies and socio economic studies” South Africa (DEA, 2017:219). The specialist input should be intelligible, obtainable and concise to a non-specialist and should consist of inter alia, and depending on the Scope of Work (SoW), a field study, reasonable opinion, provision of baseline information, impact assessment and detailed modelling where applicable (Brownlie, 2005; Keatimilwe & Ashton, 2005).
Specialists provide continual research as well as input into the development of best practice guidelines (Sandham et al., 2013:14). Cato (2001) claimed that best practice has standards that attain achievement and quality, along with a system where evaluation and review has to take place by suitable professionals. Best practice principles are identified by peoples’ moral values concerning the government, uncertainty, the distribution of natural resources and the environment (Macintosh, 2010:406).
General requirements are set out by NEMA (Act no. 107 of 1998) Section 13(1) that “a specialist … must—
(a) be independent;
(b) have expertise in conducting environmental impact assessments or undertaking specialist work as required, including knowledge of the Act, these Regulations and any guidelines that have relevance to the proposed activity;
(c) ensure compliance with these Regulations;
(d) perform the work relating to the application in an objective manner, even if this results in views and findings that are not favourable to the application” (South Africa, 2017:225).
The specialist has a vital role to play in the EIA process that contributes to the decision-making of the proposed project that includes:
The EIA process contains the following phases in which specialists are necessary at several intervals to offer their contribution: pre-application planning or throughout the screening, scoping and impact assessment process (Keatimilwe & Ashton, 2005:6; Münster, 2005). Specialists’ typically determine the baseline condition of a site prior to development and formulate perceived impacts that the proposed development may have on the receiving environment. Once the baseline condition and perceived impacts are determined, reasonably alternatives may be developed that could result in less of an impact on the receiving environment. Alternatives are best measured where the proposal has significant opportunities and flexibility, in the pre-application of EIA to prevent and avoid unnecessary impacts (Winter & Baumann, 2005:23). The specialist may participate throughout the screening and scoping stage in order to identify and offer responses to the impacts associated with the proposed development (Münster, 2005:16).
Well-written briefs for specialist studies as well as set Terms of Reference (TOR) are important in ensuring that the specialists are dedicated to the project objectives and provide answers to questions raised during the scoping phase (DEAT, 2002:8). It is vital for the specialist to be given an extensive description of the project and his roles and responsibilities from the Environmental Assessment Practitioner (EAP) to ensure that he/she knows what is required and expected from them and to ensure that all interactions, interdependencies and information-sharing specifications between specialist studies are recognised and identified in the TOR (Brownlie, 2005; DEAT, 2002:8).
A common understanding and clear communication of what is expected may ensure an effective and efficienct specialist involvement (Münster, 2005:25). The development of the TOR supports clear communications that have been agreed to and negotiated between the specialist and the EAP (Münster, 2005:25). The EAP needs to understand the timing and position of the various specialist disciplines in the EIA process, the potential methods that can be implemented, questions that specialists need to focus on as well as the information to be shared between the specialists (Münster, 2005:25). As stated by Brownlie (2005), when more than one specialist is involved information should be exchanged, points of inconsistency or conflict should be identified and mitigation measures should be aligned. Specialists should have the ability to interact, work, communicate, determine and resolve impacts with other specialists (DEAT, 2002:11; Münster, 2005:25).
In terms of the required documents that have to be provided to specialists before they can visit the area where an EIA is applicable, it is suggested that the specialists should be provided with a copy of the scoping report or a Background Informaiton Document (BID) to help encourage a better comprehension of the required interdisciplinary (DEAT, 2002:10). According to the NEMA (Act no. 107 of 1998) Section 12(3)(b), the specialist must have access to all relevant information “at the disposal of the proponent or applicant regarding the application, whether or not such information is favourable to the application” (South Africa, 2017:224).
The TOR should contain the type of methods that the specialist will use, content and structural requirements, sources of information, how the information should be communicated, impact mitigation requirements and the criteria used to assess the significance of the impact (DEAT, 2002:10; Keatimilwe & Ashton, 2005:4; Münster, 2005:25). The TOR should also clear up the procedural features such as confidentiality and review requirements, the project schedule, budget schedule as well as information trading and interaction with other specialists (Münster, 2005:25).
Specialist studies must offer the necessary information on the negative and positive impacts linked with the project options to respond to the main concerns related with the proposed project (DEAT, 2002:5). The studies have to present guidance for actions that may either lead to an increase of potential benefits, or a reduction of harmful effects. Specialist are appointed in order to analyse and assess the impacts on the current state (DEAT, 2002:5). According to Keatimilwe & Ashton (2005:4), specialist reports should be clearly laid out, easily understood and have an accepted structure. The specialist should have consistency with the national legislation, plans and policies, and international obligations. Specialists are expected to be objective and independent. They should not attach financial value to the outcomes of the project (Keatimilwe & Ashton, 2005:4) unless specifically required in terms of the methodology applied.
Clear communication supports transparency, enables recommendations and ensures that the decision-makers and stakeholders will understand the report (Keatimilwe & Ashton, 2005:18). Specialists have to identify overlapping areas, potential gaps and linkages in the information related to their findings. The report must contain information that is adequate to evaluate impact acceptability and significance (DEAT, 2002; South Africa, 1998). In addition to this, Appendix 6 of GN R 326 of 2017, issued in terms of the NEMA (Act no. 107 of 1998), also defines minimum information requirements for specialist reports (South Africa, 2017:273).
The specialist report should consist of the necessary information required for informed decisions. Therefore the study should be adequate to provide anwers to the fundamental questions with a high level of certainty (Keatimilwe & Ashton, 2005:18). The objective of providing the policy, planning and legislative context regarding the project is to certify that the proposed development is persistent with current lawful requirements and policy principles and commitments, as well as to establish any constraints and opportunities (Keatimilwe & Ashton, 2005:20). Thus specialists have an important role insuring that the decision-makers have the adequate and relevant information to make informed and rational decisions about the proposed development (DEAT, 2002:5; Keatimilwe & Ashton, 2005:20).
The alternatives formulated by the specialist can consist of location, layout alternatives, siting or routing alternatives, design and/or process alternatives, input alternatives, management alternatives or scheduling alternatives (Keatimilwe & Ashton, 2005:19). Project proposals should contain potential alternatives from a few, or all of these classes. Alternatives must be focussed on addressing the important issues (Keatimilwe & Ashton, 2005:19). The specialist should identify further alternatives driven by the study that would enhance benefits and mitigate or avoid negative impacts (Keatimilwe & Ashton, 2005:19).
Baseline surveys are necessary to describe the environment and generate appropriate information and data used by specialists to identify and evaluate the potential impacts (Brownlie & Treweek, 2018:7; DEAT, 2002:14). It is therefore important that the data collected for the baseline design are reliable to discuss the questions asked throughout the scoping phase (DEAT, 2002:14).
The EAP should incorporate the specialist information into the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to make it more comprehensible to the Interested and Affected Parties (I&APs), as well as to the competent authorities (DEAT, 2002:10). The original specialist report should be obtainable as a stand-alone report for reference if more information is needed (DEAT, 2002:10). The specialist should have the chance to review and analyse the draft EIR to certify that the recommendations as well as the findings in the specialist study are correctly considered in the report (Brownlie, 2005). Peer review of the specialist report is good practice which assure scientific quality (Brownlie & Treweek, 2018:8). The specialist and reviewer should complement each other regarding their expertise (DEAT, 2002:13).
Specialists must suggest review and monitoring programmes to evaluate the efficacy of enhancement and mitigation measures and set significant standards to measure them (DEA&DP, 2015:8). The EAP should assess the endorsements in the specialist reports and present a general endorsement for the Best Practical Environmental Option (BPEO), which takes the outcome of the specialist studies into account (Winter & Baumann, 2005:40). Provided that there are dissimilarities in the outlook between specialists concerning the BPEO, the EIR should feature these causes (Winter & Baumann, 2005:40).
The specialist involvement should be scientific, concise and technically sound, attentive on the main concerns as well as available to and explicit to a non-specialist (Brownlie, 2005). Through the successful contribution of a specialist, the necessary information can be provided to make a fair decision in the EIA process. Specialists help result in informed decisions in the EIA process, improving the decision-making process. Futhermore specialists predict changes that may occur from proposed developments and its alternatives, evaluate the consequences of these changes for the ecological and socio-economic environment, recommend actions that will strengthen the positive impacts and mitigate or avoid negative impacts (DEA&DP, 2015:7).
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