What is an Environmental Impact Assessment?

An environmental impact assessment in Western Australia is a process governed by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in line with the Environmental Protection Act 1986 (EP Act). At a national level, environmental impact assessments may also be assessed and considered for approval by the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE).

Environmental impact assessments (EIA) are used to predict the effect proposed projects or developments (proposals) may have on the environment before they are carried out. Environmental assessments establish knowledge about the receiving environment and environmental impact assessment then assess the consequences that planned actions could have on the environment, whether positive or negative. 

Environmental impact assessments are also used as a tool for environmental management, to help in determining necessary impact mitigations and other management or remedial measures, such as rehabilitation and monitoring.  Environmental impact assessments form an essential part of project approval and decision making.

Environmental impact assessments help to:

  • Define the receiving environment
  • Identify potential adverse environmental impacts
  • Propose measures to reduce or prevent adverse impacts
  • Facilitate environmental approvals
  • Ensure sustainable development

What is the Purpose of an Environmental Impact Assessment?

The purpose of an environmental impact assessment is to help decision makers consider potential environmental impacts before approving a proposal (project) to proceed. An environmental impact assessment is a tool used for planning and decision making. The purposes of environmental impact assessment include:

  • To reduce or avoid negative impacts on the environment 
  • To allow members of the public to provide input (for some assessments)
  • To ensure sustainable development

What are the Benefits of Environmental Assessments?

Environmental assessments allow us to properly understand the receiving environment and to then via EIA, consider the environmental effects certain actions (projects and developments) may have.  The information gathered from environmental assessments and EIA allows us to mitigate these impacts early in the planning phases. Environmental assessments and EIA support better decisions for the environment in accordance with the (State) Environmental Protection Act and the (Commonwealth) Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and includes benefits such as:

  • Minimising or avoiding adverse environmental effects
  • Protecting human health
  • Encouraging public participation
  • Reducing environmental harm or disasters
  • Reducing project delays 
  • Reducing project costs
  • Creating informed decisions
  • Encouraging responsible development
  • Promoting corporate social responsibility
  • Ensuring sustainable development

How are Environmental Impact Assessments Carried Out?

Environmental assessment and EIA can vary depending on the region and project. However, in general, the processes in Western Australia will include the following under the EP Act:

  • Identifying the activity or proposal (project)
  • Screening to determine if the project requires an environmental assessment
  • Defining the receiving environment in its current state via environmental assessments
  • Undertaking EIA based on defined values
  • Identifying key and other environmental factors
  • Preparation of the relevant suite of statutory environmental approvals documents and applications (e.g. referral, scoping document, permit applications, environmental review document)
  • Proposal assessment by the EPA
  • Advice to the Minister provided by EPA
  • Minister’s decision on proposal approval
  • Proposal implementation
  • Compliance obligations such as preparing and implementing environmental management plans and monitoring programs 
  • Monitoring
  • Compliance reporting

Environmental assessments and EIA should be commenced as early as possible during the planning stages of a proposed project in order for the environment to be adequately assessed, potential environmental impacts to be considered and mitigation measures to be incorporated. Ensuring early consideration of environmental assessment needs ensures that seasonal windows are not missed which can result in significant delays and cost implications for projects.

The Minister’s approval for a project to proceed will be subject to certain conditions, which will usually include the preparation and implementation of environmental management plans and monitoring programs.  

Following up After an Environmental Impact Assessment

After an environmental impact assessment is completed and during the post-approval phase, monitoring is an important step. During this phase, the impacts on the environment are monitored, environmental management is continued and all aspects of compliance with environmental approvals’ conditions are audited. The monitoring phase is an important step towards achieving environmental protection.

Monitoring allows the opportunity to learn from cause and effect, and via adaptive management, helps to control environmental impacts. The data collected will include environmental values from impact and reference (control) sites.  From this data, the following can then be carried out and determined:

  • Comparison of results between impact and reference sites and between sites from previous years
  • Determination of changes and differences in results
  • The reasons for the changes or differences
  • Whether mitigation measures successfully reduced or eliminated environmental impacts

Environmental impact assessments are an important tool used to reduce the impact projects and developments may have on the environment. Environmental assessments define the receiving environment and EIA then identifies adverse environmental effects that may result, and then proposes measures to reduce or prevent these impacts. Regulatory authorities (at State and/or Commonwealth levels) will then utilise information gathered to determine whether or not a proposal should be approved. It is critical that environmental assessments commence as early as possible during the planning stages of a project so that project definition, impact assessment and mitigation measures can be considered allowing plenty of time, in order to prevent costly project delays. The compliance period is also significantly important, which will likely include ongoing management, monitoring and compliance reporting; all important steps in confirming whether management measures were successful or not and the reasons for this. Where monitoring predicts the need for adaptive management to ensure environmental impacts are avoided or minimised, this ensures environmental compliance and sustainable development.

Environmental assessments and EIA commenced early and carried out by experienced and competent environmental professionals, usually specialist environmental consultants, ensures organisations can achieve sustainable development and avoid unnecessary costs or delays.