Many different environmental reports set out to achieve different aims, and it is easy to get lost in a sea of acronyms. Marie Louise Heffernan guides you through the maze as she focuses on two key areas relevant to engineers – Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Appropriate Assessment (AA).

There are two main types of environmental assessment processes. These are Environmental Impact  EIA and Appropriate Assessment AA. Both follow a similar pattern with a report (EIAR /NIS) produced and the assessment (EIA/AA) carried out by the competent or consent authority.

EIA requirements derive from EU Directive 85/337/EEC The initial Directive of 1985 and its three amendments have been codified by DIRECTIVE 2011/92/EU of 13 December 2011. Directive 2011/92/EU has been amended in 2014 by DIRECTIVE 2014/52/EU on the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment.

Significant effects on environment

The primary objective of the EIA Directive is to ensure that projects which are likely to have significant effects on the environment are subject to an assessment of their likely impacts

The former legal basis is the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is the process of examining the anticipated environmental effects of a proposed project – from consideration of environmental aspects at design stage, through consultation and preparation of an Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIAR).

The EIAR is a multidisciplinary report with various chapters on human beings, visual impact, air, hydrology, noise, archaeology, ecology and geology. It aims to consider all these factors and their interactions in respect of the proposed project.

The approach adopted in the EIA Directive is that EIA is mandatory for all Annex I projects on the basis that these project classes will always have significant environmental effects. Annex II projects are approached in a variable manner in different member states. In Ireland we have also mandatory thresholds for each of the Annex II project classes

Examples of projects requiring EIAR are large. For example EIA is required if stated threshold is met; a development of more than 500 houses, a quarry larger than 5ha, a wind farm of five turbines or 5MW in energy generation output or any urban development greater than 2ha in size. Often they are infrastructure projects such as runway greater than 2.1km or ports capable of taking 1,350t vessels.

Screening for EIA means a report laying out whether or not the project falls into the category to prepare an EIAR report. However, it must be remembered that in some cases sub-threshold projects such as a 4MW wind farm may require an EIAR.  

Considerable power

Irish legislation addresses the possible need for EIA below the national thresholds. There is a requirement to carry out EIA where the competent/consent authority considers that a development would be likely to have significant effects on the environment. This gives considerable power to the planning authority be it the councils or An Bord Pleanála.

EIAR by its very nature is project based and the evaluation of the EIAR by a competent authority, the subsequent decision as to whether the project should be permitted to proceed, encompassing public response to that decision is known as the Environmental Impact Assessment.

Normally the EIAR is prepared by an Environmental Consultancy team and the assessment known as the Environmental Impact Assessment carried out by the competent or consenting body.

The other main type of environmental project assessment is Appropriate Assessment . An Appropriate Assessment (AA) is an assessment of the potential adverse effects of a plan or project (alone or in combination with other plans or projects) on Special Areas of Conservation SAC and Special Protection Areas SPA .

These sites are known as Natura 2000 sites and are protected by National and European Law. The requirement for 'Appropriate Assessment' is set out in Articles 6(3) and 6(4) of the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC). 

Conservation objectives

The AA is an ecological report which focuses on the impacts of the projects in respect of the conservation objectives of the Natura 2000 site. AA is not threshold based. In fact, small projects like the drilling of a well, extension of a house or even fencing can require an assessment.

Location is more important than project size and defining 'zone of Influence' is critical. Thus the zone of influence requires to be defined for each project.

A 'zone of influence' is the difference between an activity's spatial footprint and the extent of the activity's effects on surrounding habitat and wildlife populations. Light, noise and hydrological connections are the major influencers in this regard. So consideration must be given to the zone of influence of a project and the presence of Natura 2000 sites within this zone is critical in triggering AA.

If Appropriate Assessment is triggered then the project will normally require planning permission. The 2010 Planning Act incorporates the Habitats Directive. Therefore a lot more projects are coming into the planning net than ever before.

Natura Impact Statement

The normal 'exempted development' such as a 40m2 extension unto an existing house doesn’t apply where Appropriate Assessment or even a screening for Appropriate Assessment is required Screening for AA refers to a report laying out whether or not the project falls into the category to prepare what is known as an Natura Impact Statement (NIS) report.  

Normally the NIS is prepared by an ecologist and the assessment known as the Appropriate Assessment carried out by the competent or consenting body, which is often the planning authority. 

The question is always will the plan or project have a significant negative impact on the Natura 2000 site in view of the sites conservation objectives. So, for example, if an SAC is selected to protect blanket bogs and otters the conservation objectives will be to maintain or restore these species.

The Appropriate Assessment will then ask the question will the plan or project have a negative impact on blanket bog or otter populations associated with that Natura 2000 site within its zone of influence.

Unlike EIA which only applies to projects, AA is applicable to both plans and  projects. Typical plans which require AA are the County Development Plan or for example a National Fisheries Plan. 

One of the main differences between Environmental Impact Assessment process and the Appropriate Assessment Process is the broad nature of EIA encompassing many different specialisations. In contrast AA is narrow with an ecology only focus.

EIA is triggered by thresholds whereas AA process is triggered by location of the project in respect of the Natura 2000 network. The need for an Appropriate Assessment can trigger a planning application whereas EIA cannot. But perhaps the most significant of all is that the AA process can result in a project getting a 'red flag' assessment where negative impacts cannot be fully  addressed through mitigation. 

Biodiversity crisis

This effectively means that the project legally cannot proceed without permission for exemption from Europe (called IROPI). Most projects that get to this stage are shelved as the IROPI (imperative reasons of overriding public interest) bar is hard to reach and the process can take years.

In 2019 the government declared a biodiversity crisis. The living planet index shows an 80% decline in aquatic species worldwide and this is happening in Ireland too. In the 1980s the salmon run was about 2.5 million it is one-tenth of that today. EIA and AA are tools available to us to help us make better decisions in respect of projects impact on the environment.

Under the most recent European REFIT … the new goal for all European states is 30% of our land designated by 2030. Ireland has one of the lowest levels at about 14%, so we have a lot of ground to make up. 

These assessments are very much here to stay and will enable us to sustainably develop in years to come – continuing to develop our projects in harmony with nature.

Author: Marie Louise Heffernan CEnv, MCIEEM, MSc, has 25 years’ experience working on the Habitats Directive. She has trained more than 500 professionals to date in this area