There are many laws in South Africa designed to protect the environment, but the Environment Conservation Act of 1989 that governs environmental impact assessments (EIAs) gives the general public the chance to try and help with the protection of the environment. Public participation is important in EIAs. Many environmental consultants are agreed that although any EIA generates people who are participating on the grounds of "I don't want this development in my backyard", local people often know things that the consultant, who often comes from far away, would have difficulty finding out.
Public participation also gives the department of environmental affairs, who look over the EIAs before giving developments the go-ahead, a better insight onto the particular issues in the area of the development. Public participation in an environmental impact assessment begins after the developer appoints a consultant. They discuss the general plan, and then submit an application to the department of environmental affairs.
A plan of study is then created for the EIA scoping process. Many EIAs, especially for smaller projects, do not go beyond the scoping process. This is usually because the scoping process does not unearth any major potential environmental impacts that would need further specialist input.
Once a plan of study for scoping has been reviewed by the authorities, the public participation process starts. Environmental consultants have to advertise the proposed development using signboards (often a plasticcovered white notice, A3 size) on the site of the proposed activity, as well as in the print media. A thorough consultant usually also tries to inform all neighbours of activities on their doorstep, often through individual letters.
Adverts call for "Interested and Affected Parties" – as one consultant puts it "If they ever want to build a hotel on the top of Table Mountain, I'm an interested party even though I don't live in Cape Town". Those people who respond usually learn more about the details of the project from a public meeting, where a background information document is usually handed out.
Any issues raised by interested and affected parties have to be addressed by the consultant in the EIA scoping report. If they are not addressed, or not adequately addressed, the project can be appealed against. After the public meeting, the consultant usually goes about his business gathering data for the project and addressing public concerns.
Issues that are often looked into include visual impacts, noise impacts, water usage, power supply, impacts on plants and animals, archaeological issues, waste disposal, offensive odours, how long a development will last and what happens if it has a foreseeable lifetime, socio-economic benefits and others. The public can question all of these aspects at the public meeting.
The environmental information is compiled into a draft scoping report, and the interested and affected parties must also be allowed to comment on this document. Part of the document can often be emailed to people who ask for it, and a copy of the document is normally placed in location where the public can gain access to it, such as a library, with the developer, or with some other responsible person. A time period is usually stipulated for comments.It is at this stage the public can find out if the queries they initially raised have been addressed, and how any environmental impacts should be mitigated.
If a person feels the situation has not been looked at hard enough, they can send further comments in to the consultant, who can look at the matter before compiling the final scoping report that is submitted to the authorities.
An observant reader of draft scoping reports can also often pick up other things discovered in the course of the assessment that might merit further study. These can also be commented on. The supply of water to a development can be a major stumbling block in semi-arid South Africa.
Once public participation on the draft scoping report is complete, the final scoping report is sent on to the department of environmental affairs. They look at the report, and then make recommendations that allow the development to proceed, or they can stop projects that are unsustainable.
Sometimes, depending on the details in the scoping report, they allow developments to proceed in a smaller form, or in another location or only if certain conditions are met. These details are spelled out in the "Record of Decision" issued by the department of environmental affairs.
If anyone still feels that the development has major environmental issues that are not addressed, they can appeal the record of decision if they do so within 30 days of the record of decision. This then takes the process to a higher level, where issues are once again addressed.
As there is currently no registration authority for people performing environmental impact assessments, although certain minimum qualifications are needed, the quality and objectivity of an EIA often depends on the nature of the company performing it. Without public participation, it is that much harder for overworked officials in the department of environmental affairs to pick up dubious activities, misrepresentations of the truth in scoping reports and other suspicious activities.