The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) defines an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as an examination, analysis and assessment of planned activities with a view to ensuring environmentally sound and sustainable development. Since their inception in the late 1960s, EIA has developed into a regulated and institutionalised process for identifying, predicting, assessing and mitigation the potential effects of development projects on the environment. In decades past, research has shown that there has been a deficient emphasis placed on considerations of health in EIA practice. The implementation of Human Impact Assessments (HIA) in EIA practice is vital to ensuring that new development projects sustain the health and wellbeing of the surrounding human population.
There can be grave consequences for the exclusion of Human Impact Assessments in EIAs. A recent example is provided by the situation in Esperance Western Australia where the process of shipping lead carbonate was not properly assessed in the EIA process. The carriage of lead carbonate on open sided carriages to the port and additionally the loading of these carriages onto ships without adequate restraint or protection for the product in what were routinely high winds at such an exposed coastal area, caused large amounts of the lead carbonate to spread across the small community of Esperance. The problems were first evidenced across a few days in early 2007 when thousands of deceased birds were scattered along the coast surrounding Esperance. This led to an investigation which uncovered contamination and prompted testing of children and adults in the area, showing that many children and several adults had levels of lead in their blood which exceeded safe limits. The company operating the port, Magellan Metals, was ordered to clean up Esperance Port and community. This continues to cost the company tens of millions of dollars and in hindsight, the adverse health effects could have been mitigated through the EIA process if it had adequately implemented a HIA.
Unfortunately, EIAs are merely a tool which may assist decision making. The only obligation upon decision makers in utilising EIAs is that they follow certain procedures and examine information impartially. As well as the practical limits of what an impact assessment can achieve, not all proposals, plans or projects have to be subject to impact assessments and indeed, some mechanisms have clear exemptions to the EIA process. For instance, impact assessment only applies to projects that may have a “significant” impact. In this regard, the word “significant” has become a threshold for determining whether EIA processes should apply or not. Moreover, Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT are the only states within Australia that have implemented legislation which ensures that the assessment of human health impacts is incorporated in EIAs.
At present it is concerning that there is very little support and capacity in Australia to conduct HIAs. There is great need to develop our systems and heighten our capacity to support the use of HIAs in all EIAs of development projects. Australia is currently seeing the growth of numerous industries which have the potential to negatively impact our population and every effort must be made to reduce the impacts that these industries have on our country and our people.