Nicholas School Internship Blogs

The midpoint review
by -- July 20th, 2011

How does one make a summer of researching and writing environmental policy sound exciting? By making progress, of course!

First, the wonky policy stuff:

Anytime you are working with policy changes, progress comes in fits and spurts.  While the work so far has been slower than I would like, I can’t help but be pleased with the results.  So far.

So what have we accomplished?

For any large project, the required EIA acts as a decision-making document for the state’s environmental permitting agency, INEA.  The process of “scoping” an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) involves deciding what actual impacts are important.  If it’s a steel manufacturing plant, the air and water emissions and habitat destruction are probably the most important.  But what if there aren’t many people living in the area, and hundreds of employee houses will be needed?  That’s another impact one might not think of.  What about the traffic that thousands of employees will bring?

Nobody knows a project site like the people that live there, but currently, the state’s method of scoping the EIA is done by technicians located hundreds of miles away.  These technicians are frequently under pressure to ignore possible impacts, and the state lacks a central database of endangered species habitat, toxic soils, or even areas of poor air quality.  With the assumption that significant impacts were being left out of the EIA process and expertise was going to waste, we found a way to kill two birds with one stone – open the scoping process up to public comment, combining local expertise with INEA’s technical expertise.

Our proposal was met with resigned acceptance from the folks at INEA, with whom we meet on a weekly basis.  After all, the Ministerio Publico has the ability to file suit over incomplete or misleading EIAs, and nobody wants to go to jail.  We are now a short period of time away from ratifying our first decree, writing into law the terms of public access to the scoping stage of an EIA, and requiring that all written comments be included and addressed in the EIA’s scoping document.  Score one for the planet.

What’s coming up?

Next step is improving the screening of projects to better catch potentially damaging projects.  INEA has recently launched a new site to better gauge the potential impact of a project.  Everything from a grocery store to a steel mill must start at the website, but our analysis found a problem: the website does not examine the project’s “context.”  It assumes certain emissions for a project based on its type, but not where it is.  A grocery store built over the last few acres of habitat for an endangered species is not the same as a grocery store built in a brownfield!

Our solution involves drafting a new set of questions to gauge “context” of a project.  Prospects for cooperation are looking bright, and our question set should be written to a new decree in the next few weeks.  If it passes, score a second one for the planet!

What’s left to do?

While the parade of issues, problems, and flaws in the EIA system continues like a samba school dancing through Carnival, the successes won thus far provide fuel for even harder work.  Having the opportunity to make an actual difference in policy and getting to see language we draft written into a law that makes a positive change in the environment is an incredible reward, and hopefully it won’t be the last.  Next, we write the new methods for reviewing EIA within the Ministerio Publico, paying special attention to past mistakes.

But enough of the wonky stuff – stay tuned for Part II – We finally leave the city of Rio, explore colonial Paraty, and I give a talk on the California Environmental Quality Act!

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