Why have an EIA Law? The Case for Public Participation

Jasmine Goh

Year 2, Yale-NUS and NUS Law Double Degree Programme

National University of Singapore

INTRODUCTION

The process of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) in Singapore has always been elusive to the general public. The EIA, a systematic method of evaluating impacts to the environment that exists within a legal framework, has been adopted in many countries around the world. The EIA reveals potential impacts that a building project might have on the environment, and also conveys mitigating measures in order to reduce those impacts. While EIA legislation is lacking in Singapore, the government released an EIA regarding the recent Cross Island Line project that cuts through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. This highlights that an EIA framework, although not in legislation, does exist within Singapore.

Recently, Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee announced that steps would be taken to strengthen the EIA process in Singapore. This is a certainly a step forward in environmental law, as it is crucial to have a concrete method that allows the public to understand how the government conducts impact assessments on the environment. Many have made the case for EIA laws through comparative case studies with Singapore’s Asian neighbours. However, I contend that an equally important reason for legislating EIA would be its emphasis on the process of public participation, which is central to the EIA process.

WHAT GOOD IS AN EIA LAW?

In an article assessing Environmental Law in Singapore, Professor Alan Tan highlighted that the structure of Singapore’s dispersed authority and centralized planning has rendered EIA legislation less crucial. Professor Tan highlighted the following:

“…Land planning process [is one of the] instruments of policy to implement EIA in Singapore. Given the relatively effective and efficient centralized planning mechanism, the lack of an EIA law does not appear to have severely hampered environmental-management efforts.”

Similarly, a spokesman from the Ministry of National Development (MND) has also highlighted that there are processes that the Government has that renders an EIA law unnecessary. These processes are said to be “comprehensive”, taking into account “impacts for biodiversity, hydrology, water quality, air and noise pollution, vibration, recreation, sediment transport, navigation and trans-boundary impacts, depending on the project’s context”. Thus, the comprehensiveness of the current approach that the government has adopted appears to effectively replace any need for environmental legislation.

Yet, the EIA arguably provides more than efficiency and certainty in assessing impacts of building projects on the environment. In Hong Kong, the robust EIA Ordinance displays many commendable characteristics. Notably, one key feature of the EIA Ordinance in Hong Kong is its requirement of mandatory public inspection. While the Director of the project does not need to consider the comments made regarding the project in making her decision of whether to approve the application of permit, the existence of a public inspection clause allows the public to be actively involved in local environmental risk assessments. This ensures the accountability of the authorities to the public, allowing an avenue for feedback. Furthermore, this method is effective in raising awareness amongst the public about important governmental processes.

Looking homewards to Singapore, the publication of the EIA conducted for the Cross Island Line was certainly an achievement for nature-lovers. Through the EIA released on the Land Transport Authority website, the public was able to glimpse into the processes that the government adopted in assessing environmental impact. Yet, the EIA was lacking in the public participation element in its process. According to the precautionary principle, which the EIA process is deeply rooted in, broad participation is required in order to achieve successful legislation. While there was an opportunity for public consultation in order to ensure the robustness of the Cross Island Line project, the lack of it is unfortunate.

THE ROLE OF PUBLIC PARTICIPATION

The Aarhus Convention has strongly underlined the right for public participation in environmental decision-making. This fundamental right of the public is focal to EIA legislation. Public participation not only allows the government to procure feedback from the citizenry, but also bridges an important gap, allowing the government to gain the trust of the people.

Public Participation in Hong Kong’s EIA Ordinance

Despite its emphasis on public participation in the EIA process, the final decision lies in the hands of the project Director, as opposed to depending solely on public opinion to arrive at decisions. While the Singaporean government seems to have suggested that the final decision ultimately should rest with the authorities, the EIA Ordinance model in Hong Kong provides a good compromise that the Singaporean authorities could consider.

Jasmine EIA
Hong Kong EIA process, showing the various points where public input is integrated into the process.

Public Trust Doctrine

The Public Trust Doctrine, which essentially provides that certain natural resources are held “on trust” for the public and therefore legal owners of these resources are entrusted to use these resources for specific public purposes, is identified as a key component of environmental law, and is relevant to the public participation aspect of EIA legislation.

In an article applying the Public Trust Doctrine to the Government’s decision to delay plans to reclaim Chek Jawa, Joseph Chun highlighted the following:

“The doctrine offers a means to legally require greater transparency and openness in the decision-making process when the State proposes to alienate or change the common use of these lands, apparently to the detriment of the common interest of the public.”

Currently, the public has limited platforms to hold the State accountable for the redevelopment of environmental resources. Implementing EIA legislation creates an avenue the public to do so. The emphasis on public engagement, transparency and accountability are in alignment with the Public Trust Doctrine. This would further demonstrate the government’s willingness to work together with the public regarding environmental matters, facilitating more effective communication between the government and the people.

Public Participation in Singapore

The idea of public participation in Singapore has not been new. A successful initiative that has involved much public participation is the Green Corridor Project. In 2015, the Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore acknowledged public participation and community involvement in “achieving a key milestone for the Rail Corridor project”. Events such as the ‘Re-imagining the Rail Corridor’ Design Workshop allowed students, designers, and members of the public to come together to develop ideas for the future of the Rail Corridor. The Green Corridor is a living example of a communal space which both the authorities and the public share a role in shaping.  

The idea of having public participation as a focal aspect of Impact Assessment has also been raised in other sectors. In particular, the closure of Sungei Road Market in mid-July has sparked further conversations of a Social Impact Assessment. A recent Straits Times article pointed out that an “independent study and assessment of the social impact of the [Sungei Road] market should have been commissioned” and “consultations with the wider public should have also taken place”. While MCCY Minister Grace Fu has defended the need of it, suggesting that the National Heritage Board has adopted their own “calibrated and sensitive approach” that foregoes the need for a proper Impact Assessment procedure, surely the benefits of it go beyond practicality. The suggestion of a social impact assessment would have allowed a platform where the public can come together and find a communal solution to the problem. The diversity of opinions, as well as greater expert advice would have potentially allowed for a solution worked out by both the government and the people.

CONCLUSION

The reasons for implementing an EIA law locally should extend beyond that of international norms. Given the importance of public participation in the EIA process, there is a huge potential for community involvement in policymaking, bridging the gap between the government and the public. This can result in greater benefits for both parties, as seen in the Green Corridor Project. The EIA process should be kept alive by the very citizenry that it influences. It is a two-way street: through the process of public consultation that the public is able to learn about environmental development, and the government has an opportunity to learn about the people’s needs.

REFERENCES

  1. Chun, Joseph, “Reclaiming the Public Trust in Singapore”. Singapore Academy of Law Journal, Vol. 17, pp. 717, 2005. https://ssrn.com/abstract=918737
  2. European Commission. “What is the Aarhus Convention?” Accessed 29 September 2017. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/aarhus/
  3. Land Transport Authority. “Cross Island Line”. Accessed 29 September 2017. https://www.lta.gov.sg/content/ltaweb/en/public-transport/projects/cross-island-line.html
  4. Martuzzi, Marco and A.Tickner, Joel. The precautionary principle: protecting public health, the environment and the future of our children. WHO Regional Office for Europe, 2004.
  5. “MTR Sustainability Report 2014 — Environment” MTR Corporation Limited (Hong Kong), last modified May 2015. http://www.mtr.com.hk/en/corporate/sustainability/2014rpt/images/chart/ch4-2-large.jpg
  6. Melody Zaccheus, “Spirit of Sungei Road Market”. The Straits Times, 12 March, 2017. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/spirit-of-sungei-road-market
  7. Nature Society Singapore. “The Green Corridor”. Accessed 29 September, 2017. https://www.nss.org.sg/banner.aspx?id=fuCxSM0A9zI=&type=2
  8. Tan, Alan. “Preliminary Assessment of Singapore’s Environmental Law”, Asian Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Network. Accessed 29 September, 2017. http://www.aecen.org/sites/default/files/singapore_eia_casestudy_prelimassessmentenvilawinsg_1997.pdf
  9. Tan, Audrey. “A better way to assess harm to the environment.” The Straits Times, 3 November, 2016. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/a-better-way-to-assess-harm-to-environment
  10. Tan, Audrey. “Steps to beef up process of wildlife impact assessment: Desmond Lee” The Straits Times, 26 June, 2017. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/steps-to-beef-up-process-of-wildlife-impact-assessment
  11. The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. “Legislative Framework, EIA Ordinance.” Accessed 29 September 2017. http://www.epd.gov.hk/eia/english/legis/pt2.html#7
  12. Urban Redevelopment Authority, “URA announces Rail Corridor RFP awards and exhibition”. Accessed 29 September, 2017. https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/media-room/news/2015/nov/pr15-53.aspx

  13. Picture credit: Photo by Gem & Lauris RK on Unsplash
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