Murray Raff introduced the forum with a discussion of the ten principles of quality in environmental impact assessment, as determined by court cases in about 70 jurisdictions worldwide. EIA legislation is one of three areas he identified as being important drivers for 'best practice'. Others include accreditation by statutory authorities such as the EPA and other guidelines and standards developed by and for industry. Murray talked about why the introduction of environmental law, first in the United States, was pivotal in introducing foresight into the legal system which had traditionally depended on a discussion of historic precedent for decision-making and how this has become the model for Australian environmental law. Our legal system depends entirely on the provision of information and there is the assumption that this information is correct before a decision is made. The worse case scenario is that a decision is made and the information is incorrect or that the information to make a correct decision is not provided in the first place. This very much places the work of ecologists practising in Australia in a clear legal context.
This photo from the Wimmera of top soil erosion after agriculture illustrates the extent of what can go wrong if we fail to find the right information about environmental impacts.
The realisation of quality in EIA, the realisation of ecologically sustainable development and therefore, its legal integrity, depends heavily on the provision of reliable information and several of the ten principles relate more directly to the work of ecologists practising in Australia. For example, EIA must be done over viable time frames (Principle 5); must take a hard look at ecological consequences (Principle 9); and findings must be presented in clear language and methodologies explained (Principle 10). Murray was asked for his opinion on the apparent increase in the use of preliminary information and limited information for decision making. He noted a worrying trend towards the use of desktop information and that this was not just confined to Victoria (here).
The lack of information informing decisions in many cases limits the ability of ecologists to present findings that are consistent with EIA quality principles (listen to point 2 here). Nevertheless, we should be mindful that ecologists are not empowered to change this, except in so far as these limitations must be recognised in their reports. Matthew Townsend later supported this view by stating that caveats in the quality of work presented clearly at the head of reports was one of the basic standards by which the legal profession measured the honesty and therefore usefulness of consultants' work (listen to point 1 here).
Treweek (1996) Ecology and Environmental Impact Assessment
Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management's Guidelines for Ecological Impact Assessment in the United Kingdom
Treweek (1999) Ecological Impact Assessment (limited review in Google Books)
What a Graduate Should Know: Survey Skills (IEEM, 2007)