The Green Post: Between a developer and an African bullfrog

2012-03-31 21:36

On the N1, just before Midrand turns into Centurion, an abandoned construction site pollutes the horizon.

Once upon a time this was the site where the new Pan African Parliament would have been built.

That is until the developers had the bright idea to build the PAP smack in the middle of a wetland – also coincidentally the backyard of the highly endangered African bullfrog.

Who carried the blame for that blunder? The faulty environmental impact assessment – the notorious EIA. We didn’t know, said the developer. We trusted our consultant who did the EIA. And the EIA said there was no wetland.

We didn’t know, said the Gauteng environmental authority. We only studied what was presented in the EIA.
EIAs are not exactly the favourite part of a developer’s job. “Expensive red tape”, a developer once joked.

EIAs are seen as a nuisance and an obstacle to development. It has the potential to scupper developers’ plans, worth millions of rands, with the mention of a few cursed words: endangered mole, grassland owl or rare butterfly.

Except, the EIAs rarely do scupper their plans.

When is the last time a big developmental project was stopped for environmental reasons? Delayed, yes – as in the case of the Pondoland toll road. But developers seem to somehow always get the green light for a development these days.

The magic word is “mitigation”.

Any EIA worth its salt to a developer will have a lovely chapter dedicated to how to “mitigate” the environmental damage the developmental project will cause.

“Yes, we will dig up the wetland, but we will plant some lovely trees and clean up the river next to the wetland in exchange for being allowed to damage the wetland.

“And one day when our grandchildren’s kids sells this development, we promise to clean up our mess and restore it to as-close-as-possible to its original state.

And we solemnly swear to carry all the costs.”

The EIA process is supposed to be impartial, because an independent environmental consultant does the assessment and presents the report straight to the provincial or national environmental authority, who then decides whether to allow the development.

But the snag in that arrangement is that the development appoints and pays the “impartial” consultant to write the EIA.

Oops. He who pays the piper ...

Environmental consulting firms will be up in arms at the suggestion that they might be “bought” because the developer is paying their salaries.

But the reality is that a big mining house or property developer will not return to a consulting firm who keeps on writing up damaging EIAs that block their developments.

The firms knows this.

At the same time, they have to be true to their profession – and its ethics. It becomes an impossible tightrope to walk.

This is why consultants love the word “mitigation”. There will be environmental damage, but we can make it better if the developer follows the listed (expensive) recommendations. And the good developer will implement these expensive measures, because they care about the environment. They will pay to make the concerns go away.

In the end it won’t be so bad ...

In the case of the PAP, the consultant took most of the blame and was convicted in court for negligence. The judge said there was not sufficient proof that the developer had in fact corrupted the consultant.

A case of “desktop publishing”, the judge believed. The consultant wrote the report without visiting the site.

Environmental groups swear this happens too often.

A few years ago in Mpumalanga there was concern about a “desktop EIA” for a new coal project in Wakkerstroom after what the consultant wrote in the report was challenged by the local community. The mining house backed off in the end, and the report was never formally challenged.

Environmental groups have certainly lost trust in the EIA process. Some groups don’t even manage to hide their distaste for the EIA consultants at public meetings where EIAs are discussed with “interested and affected parties”.

Fights have broken out at some of the meetings, with the consultants being accused of colluding with the developers.

Surely the problem – that the developer appoints and pays its chosen EIA consultant – can be fixed if a developer rather pays a “consulting fee” into an EIA pool. The government – not the developer – then appoints the environmental consultant, who reports back to the relevant environmental authority.

The consultant’s only loyalty is to the project – and not the developer – who, in the past kept the firm in business with select projects.

And if the developer receives an unfavourable EIA, he won’t be able to blacklist the consulting firm, creating a much more transparent process.

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