The Need for Environmental Impact Assessment in Decision Making for Remediation Projects

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The Bento Rodrigues dam disaster occurred on 5th November 2015, when an iron ore tailings dam in Bento Rodrigues, a subdistrict of Mariana, Brazil, suffered a catastrophic failure. Credit: Romerito Pontes

By Dr Ranveer Singh Mahwar

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the developments projects and the use of its findings in deciding the sustainability of the developments is mandatory in almost in all countries.  However, the legislation of most of the countries does not require conducting of EIA studies for the projects involving remediation of the contaminated sites. In fact remediation activities mostly get into attention only in cases where a contaminated site is intended to be used for some or other anthropogenic purposes. The Site Assessments in remediation projects also remain limited to the extent of the requirements of the remediation for the intended use of the sites.

The contamination caused from sources such as abandoned industries, closed mines, war sites, accidental spillages into the rivers/oceans such as spurting of mine waste water, bursting of tailing dams, sinking of ships containing hazardous materials etc remain or become a history except in cases where the matters are raised before the courts for actions, claims etc.

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy (BGD) which happened in December 1984 in the Union Carbide‘s pesticide plant located at Bhopal in India, still remains contaminated and claims are still awaiting settlements. One of the major reasons of such long delays could be the absence of legislation for an environmentally sound management of hazardous chemicals/wastes at that time of such accidents. The positive implication of the BGD came in the form of the enactment of the Environmental Protect Act by the Govt of India in 1986, and subsequently also notification of the rules making obtaining of the Environmental Clearance (EC) mandatory for the development projects. The obtaining of EC for the remediation activities is still not a requirement in India. However, the country has started its remediation programmes in the form of the World Bank Assisted project on Capacity Building for Industrial Pollution Management Project in the year 2010. This project included four pilot projects on remediation through learning approach.

There is another programme called “Remediation of Hazardous waste contaminated dumpsites under National Clean Energy Fund (NECF) Project” started in the year 2011. The status of the NCEF project is that work has been awarded to a multinational consultancy company in 2014 for preparing detailed project reports for eight contaminated sites in the country. These sites/areas mainly involve Mercury, Chromium, H-Acid and pesticide contamination of soil and surface/ground water. The total number of the so–called “Hazardous Waste contaminated dump sites” identified in India as of May 2017 is 71.

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy (BGD) which happened in December 1984 in the Union Carbide‘s pesticide plant located at Bhopal in India, still remains contaminated and claims are still awaiting settlements. Credit: Dr Devendra Kumar Soni

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC), Govt of India has also published Guidance documents in the year 2015 for assessment and remediation of contaminated sites. However, the very criteria of the classification of hazardous wastes got changed when the MOEFCC notified the new rules called the “Hazardous and Other wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules” in April, 2016 (HW Rules 2016). The wastes which were classified as hazardous on the basis of their composition as per the earlier rules are to be now classified on the basis of their leachability as per the HW Rules 2016. This implies that a site containing toxic metals waste may no more be considered as contaminated where the accumulated waste passes the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) or Soluble Threshold Limit Concentration (STLC) tests prescribed in the HW Rules 2016.

A review of the details of India’s contaminated sites remediation programme also indicates large differences in the geographic area (from a few hundred square meters to several square kilometres) involved in the impact zones of the identified sites, absence of studies on the environmental receptors and their migration pathways, the cost considerations limited to the process from identification to remediation, the remediation costs being a burden mostly on the Central/State Governments with little hope of its recovery from the polluters using the polluter pays principle in view of the absence of any robust enforcement mechanism , absence of feasibility studies, Absence of Risk Assessments and Disaster Management Plans , absence of soil quality standards, etc. The remediation of the sites identified and declared as contaminated is on a “has to be done” approach based activity in the country.

The global scenario on the remediation of contaminated sites is not much different from India. A review of the global survey (Latin America, USA, Canada, EU, UAE, and Asia including China) of the legislation, programmes, guidelines, etc on the subject indicates large differences in the understanding and approaches in the identification, assessment and remediation of contaminated sites. There are several terms in use such as suspected hazardous, probably contaminated, potentially contaminated, contaminated, Brownfield, and derelict sites for defining contamination of the specific sites, and decontamination, remediation, restoration etc for defining removal of the contaminants. The remediation programmes in most of the countries also appear to cover only the “has to be done” kind of approach.

The aspect of the overall sustainability of the remediation projects appear to be prevailing to some extent only in the EU Legislation where the national/regional policies are based on a Risk–Based Land Management concept. It emphasizes sustainable solutions for recovering the usability and economic value of land and its integration with the protection of environment quality. The issues covered in the EU programmes include: focus on integrating sustainable remediation with awareness among stakeholders, taking of river basin or regional approach in areas when several contaminated sites impact the environment or public health, understanding natural capacities and ecosystem functions to identify sustainable land use options, etc.

The legislation of Dubai requires obtaining a written approval or a “No Objection Certificate (NOC)” from each of the concerned departments including the Department of Environment for starting an Environmental Site Assessment (ESA), obtaining separate NOCs for any off-site disposal of the wastes generated in the remediation process and site specific “Environmental Clearance Certificate” for the sites cleared of the contamination. The documentation requirements include preparation of an ESA report in the format prescribed.

Ash Basin Upper Stormwater Drain. A concrete pipe below this coal ash impoundment failed, releasing coal ash, and ash pond water into the Dan River, North Carolina. Credit: Steven Alexander, USFWS

The need for conducting EIA studies to ascertain the sustainability of remediation projects can be best realized from the several accidents that have happened in the last three years. The major accidents are: the coal ash spill from the storage ponds of Duke Energy Plant into the Dan River in February 2014; The Gold King Mine (GKM) waste water blowout which released about 3 million gallons of mine waste water into the Animas river in August 2015; BHP owned mine dam burst in Brazil spilling mine waste into the Gualaxo do Norte river in November 2015; the turning of China’s Zhongting River red due to industrial waste discharge in April 2016; and the discharge of mine waste into the river Daldykan, Russia in September 2016. The absence of the Risk Assessment (RA) and Disaster Management Plans (DMPs) in each of these cases is evident from the trail of the consequences that followed these accidents. In fact the findings and recommendations of the internal investigations of the GKM Blowout by the US EPA and an independent technical evaluation of the same by the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), USA cover mostly the issues/aspects which are also the major components of EIA studies. The aspects pointed out by the BOR in their investigation are similar to the aspects that are otherwise covered in EIA studies and include an absence of (i) an understanding that water impounded behind a blocked mine opening can create hydraulic forces similar to those in a dam, (ii) analysis of potential failure modes, (iii) analysis of downstream consequences if failure were to occur, (iv) engineering considerations that analyze the geologic and hydrologic conditions of the general area, (v) monitoring to ensure that the structure constructed to close the mine portal continues to perform as intended and (vi) an understanding of the groundwater system affecting all the mines in the area.

The recommendations made in the US EPA’s internal review are also quite similar to the General Terms of Reference that are prepared for conducting the EIA studies for the development projects. The recommendation for a panel of experts from the various concerned areas including academia, consultants, non-governmental organizations etc for further analysis of the case and making suggestions for reducing the risk of such incidents in the future, made in the USEPA’s review, is also quite similar to the Committees of Experts that are constituted by the EC issuing Agencies for appraisal of projects and their EIA reports and making of the recommendations in regard to the sustainability of development projects. It is also evident that had an EIA study been conducted for the GKM project and the remediation planned accordingly, this incident of a remediation activity resulting in an enormous contamination could have been avoided.

It may therefore be concluded that the need for incorporating the concept of EIA in the remediation projects is obvious for ascertaining the sustainability of such projects, especially the ones involving high risks of adverse impacts on the environmental receptors.

Twitter: @DrRanveerMahwar
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/dr-ranveer-singh-mahwar-6175a418/

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