Environmental Impact Statements
Sound bites taken from Environmental Impact Statements can be fodder for cocktail parties and editorial pages for years after the project for which they were written has faded into the background. The development projects that threatened the habitat for the snail darter and the spotted owl are a distant memory, but the names of the species still seem fresh. Endangered species whose names show up on Environmental Impact Statements get the most attention. Because they receive such protection from their classification, federal wildlife authorities have had to be particularly careful when they add a species to the list or decide to take one off.
Environmental Impact Statements can be required under federal or state law in conjunction with any new building project or change in land use that has the potential to affect the environment. These projects generally involve expansion into undeveloped areas, such as wetlands or other green space, or they might be proposed in areas where the project presents a significant departure from the current use of the land. The potential for the new use to upset the delicate ecosystem in the area can exist just by the very nature of the development. For that reason, Environmental Impact Statements can be required for the construction of recreational venues as well as depositories for spent nuclear rods, new airport facilities and waterfront development. How the Environmental Impact Statement is presented, who the critics are, and what resources are at stake can make a critical difference in whether a project goes forward.
The preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement can be a long process. There are few guidelines for their preparation simply due to the unique nature of each site and its impact on the project. For example, the impact a high-traffic mall may have on a stretch of land is clearly different, though maybe no less drastic, than a fertilizer plant. The initial assessment for a project begins with the determination of what habitat is being affected. Development of an industrial project may present less of an effect on the environment if it is being proposed in an area where the indigenous plant and animal life has already been disrupted and displaced by previous use than might the addition of a park or amphitheatre in an area that previously had minimal human traffic. While the amphitheatre may retain much of the appearance of the undeveloped space, its mere construction in a previously undeveloped area may present a more significant change to the environment including clearing trash, debris, and sewage; bringing in utility service; and accommodating parking. The change created by the addition of artificial lighting and an increase in noise can significantly change a habitat.
One of the issues an EIS is expected to address is the existence of alternatives both for the site and for the project, but the determination of what constitutes a viable alternative is generally up to the writer. One of the goals of the process is to get a plan's proponent to think beyond his or her original proposal and consider alternatives. At times, it must be conceded that while alternatives exist, they are more expensive or impractical. However, knowing this helps the ultimate decision maker in the evaluation of the information. The decision hinges on whether a community will receive enough benefit to warrant adjusting to the adverse impact of the project or encourage some modifications to minimize the adverse impact. In the end, the EIS will provide the community with the information it needs to engage in dialogue and address the potential impact of the project.
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