In discussing risk in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) — ASN Events

In discussing risk in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) (12840)

Tanya Anstey

The risk narratives brought to bear by the stakeholder groups involved are seldom addressed. This paper attempts to remedy this lacuna by introducing the notion of EIAs acting as a boundary object for risk narratives, as well as examining the social construction of, and effects of place, agency and trust/communication, on the formation of these risk narratives. Using information obtained from document analysis of a case study of a contentious mine extension in New South Wales, Australia, this paper shows that EIA does operate as a boundary object, albeit one that facilitates conflict and tensions between stakeholders, in lieu of enhancing understanding and cooperation. The effects of place, agency and trust and communication are shown to be especially significant in the formulation and operationalization of public stakeholder risk narratives. 

Environmental regulation is driven by the concept of risk, indeed, it is the formal methodology used by society to address risk (Jasanoff 1999). The identification of risk, its mitigation and some form of control over it are all key elements of environmental regulation. Programs in place to address risk exist in the form of risk assessment processes like Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and are promulgated as scientific and factually driven, comprehensive procedures which accurately determine and control environmental risks. This is because governments tend to take a positivist stance on risk, asserting it as a tangible, identifiable and mutually comprehended issue that can be mapped and understood by scientific and technical processes upon which expert opinions can be based and overarching policy decisions made, with assumed agreement on the degree of and nature of these risks by both government and society (Jasanoff 1999). However, a quick glance at the media coverage of environmental issues will dispel any notion of consensus on what constitutes a risk, how risky something is and what is an acceptable level of risk.  Major developments remain divisive; mines, dams and coal seam gas are all regularly in the media because they are contentious issues. People, governments and proponents disagree over the costs and benefits of these developments. In short, they disagree about the risks inherent in these projects because they have different beliefs about what constitutes a risk.

Cashmore, Richardson et al. (2010 Page 372) noted that the 'basis of actors' beliefs have rarely been explicitly considered in discussions on impact assessment instruments, but have potentially far-reaching consequences for how they are conceptualised, used and interpreted'. Indeed, given the nature of projects that require an EIA and the varied stakeholders involved in the EIA process, these belief systems are likely to ensure significant variation in the risk narratives employed by stakeholders operating within the process itself. This variation in risk narratives and their operationalization by the stakeholders interacting with the EIA process are crucial elements in the conception of and understanding of risk within the EIA process itself