The end of April saw the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism publish new regulations guiding the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) system, which are due come into effect on July 1, 2006. The new regulations are being touted by the department as making the EIA process "quicker, simpler, better."
Announcing the new regulations, environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said, "The new EIA regulations take the best of our old system, introduce new provisions to modernise and streamline the processes, and will ensure that the application and administration of our environmental laws is more efficient and effective."
The department believes that the new laws will cut the number of new EIA applications by up to 20 percent. The new laws have compulsory timeframes for government officials assessing the EIA's, designed to prevent applications being bogged down in bureaucracy. They are also more prescriptive in terms of public participation.
Van Schalkwyk commented, "The current public participation processes lacked proper guidance and were often abused.... and the content, quality and independence of EIA reports was sometimes problematic. We are continuing our very constructive engagement with EIA practitioners on issues of self-regulation, quality and independence - but clearly the EIA system itself needed a change."
The new regulations divide activities into nine thematic areas, such as property development, energy generation and industrial activities. These areas are then divided into two schedules depending on the nature and associated risk of the activity, with some requiring only a basic assessment and the more environmentally hazardous activities requiring a thorough scoping and environmental impact assessment.
The new regulations differ from the old list of activities requiring an EIA in that they give precise rather than general descriptions of infrastructure that requires a full EIA versus a basic assessment.
For example, in property development a basic assessment is required for "The subdivision of portions of land nine hectares or larger into portions of five hectares or less" but a full EIA is needed for "Any development activity, including associated structures and infrastructure, where the total area of the developed area is, or is intended to be, 20 hectares or more."
Provincial and national roads and roads with a road reserve of more than 30 metres require a full EIA, while roads less than four metres wide do not need any kind of environmental assessment unless they are built as part of some other activity that needs environmental assessment.
Other activities needing a basic assessment include any activity that takes place in the one-in-ten-year flood line of a river or stream or within 32 metres of a stream bank; removing indigenous vegetation from an area greater than three hectares if the removal is in an endangered ecosystem; the building of tourism and hospitality facilities in a protected area as described in the protected areas act; certain types of outdoor advertisements and signs; and the construction and upgrade of radio antennae.
Some of the activities that require a full EIA include the construction of filling stations, the construction of a dam with a wall higher than five metres and large electricity generation facilities, including nuclear reactors. Various mining activities and activities that take place in coastal or marine settings are also detailed in the new regulations.
The new regulations fall in with the 1998 National Environmental Management Act (Nema), as opposed to the old regulations which follow the Environment Conservation Act of 1989. Since the introduction of EIAs in 1997, environmental affairs has received some 43,600 applications. Minister van Schalkwyk said that about 4,000 of these are still pending.