The contribution of EIA to decision making: a critical analysis of EIA refusals in South Africa
The effectiveness of the Environmental Impact Assessment process has been questioned by its critics both locally and internationally, as there is a perception that EIA process is merely a rubber stamping exercise. The objective of this study was to determine whether or not the relevant provincial authorities in South Africa have issued EIA refusals and if so what the main reasons for refusal were. Both Basic Assessment and full EIA processes were considered. Access to the EIA refusals from the various provincial environmental departments and environmental consultants was limited. Only seventeen EIA refusals were received after extended requests over a 12-month period, after which each of these were analysed. The reasons for the EIA refusals encountered in this study have been categorised into seventeen sub-classes relating to the following environmental issues: site location, socio-economics, land use/zoning, lack of justification, Spatial Development Framework (SDF), biodiversity, incompleteness of information, legislation discouraging development, visual/noise impacts, lack of alternatives, services issues, cumulative effects, groundwater, waste, specialist studies, gross non-compliance and air pollution. It is important to note that an EIA application could potentially have more than one screening trigger, and therefore it is possible that the percentages explained in this study can add up to more than 100%. The highest number of the EIA refusals’ screening triggers (8 of 17 = 47.06%) were found to be due to the transformation and rezoning of undeveloped or vacant land, and 5 of 7 (71.4%) of those particular EIA refusals were attributed to applications for residential development. Biodiversity and ecological sensitivity of the site location, as well as construction of infrastructure were next on the scale, with three (17.65%) EIA refusal screening triggers each. Finally, concentration of animals for production and storing and handling of hazardous substances both had two (11.76%) screening triggers. Only one EIA refusal did not include any substantive reasons for refusal and was refused on purely procedural grounds. The lack of justification of the development, lack of technical information and inadequate alignment with future spatial planning also constituted reasons for negative authorisations. From the results it was evident that although it is usually the procedural issues that hinder EIA, this study encountered many substantive issues, making up the majority of the reasons for EIA refusal here. This goes against international opinion that EIAs are usually turned down due to lack of adherence to process. Other findings from this study of particular interest include that no database is maintained for the number and reasons of EIA refusals that are processed, only for those that are authorised. It was also found that there were provinces that have never issued an EIA refusal. Furthermore, it was interesting to note that the reasons given in the findings for the analysed EIA refusals did not necessarily correlate with the screening triggers.