Environmental Assessments

Revised EIA rules show signs of promise

EU laws require that all projects which may have major environmental impacts (e.g. highways, power plants, irrigation systems, etc.) must have their impacts assessed before they are permitted by national authorities. In 2014, the latest set of amendments to the so-called environmental impact assessment (EIA) directive were made, and EU member states had to change their national laws accordingly by May 2017.

In a new study, environmental law network Justice&Environment analyses the implementation of these amendments and exemplifies some of the new features of the EIA rules which have the potential to lead to better quality and more adequate impact assessments. The case studies from Bulgaria, Hungary, Estonia and Slovenia provide examples of positive application of the new requirements on one-stop-shop principle, avoiding conflicts of interests, and sanctions imposed for infringements of EIA laws.

The requirement to coordinate or join EIA procedures with those for other types of assessments (under EU wildlife and water laws), has led to at least two cases - one in Estonia and the other in Bulgaria - where concerns over wildlife and water have been given more prominence in the EIA as well as the related decision-making. At the same time, streamlined procedures can also reduce unnecessary administrative burden, as exemplified by decision-making regarding reconstruction of the non-hazardous waste landfill in Bukovžlak, Slovenia.

Conflict of interest can arise when the public body is at the same time the decision-maker, developer and/or the authority in charge of EIAs. To avoid such conflicts, member states must ensure functional separation of different roles. Here, the new constellation of authorities in Slovenia can serve as a good example, with a special team being set up to issue permits in the new, integrated procedures.

The enforcement of the EIA rules depends, among other factors, on effective penalties being imposed in case the rules are breached. The revised directive explicitly requires Member States to provide such penalties. A good example in this regard has been the reaction of the Hungarian authorities to the poultry processing plant in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg. The factory in its operation had, without notifying the authorities, exceeded the threshold from which it should have been subject to EIA screening (decision on whether an EIA is needed). As a result of the failure to notify the authorities and be subject to screening, the factory was ordered to limit its production to below the EIA screening threshold.

Based on the cases introduced in the study, the implementation of the revised EIA directive show promising first signs of success. However, a lot of work is still ahead to ensure that these best practices are now consistently and uniformly applied both within the member states as well as shared across borders.

The full study is available HERE.

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