Govt agencies may post environmental impact studies online in future

NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 27 Feb 16;

SINGAPORE — Following the unprecedented release online of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) last week, government agencies will consider doing the same for future reports, especially if there is significant public interest involved.

The study being done for Mandai, ahead of its development into a wildlife and nature heritage space, will also be posted online “when ready” by Temasek-owned Mandai Safari Park Holdings (MSPH), alongside other plans for the project.

In the wake of the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) online release of the Cross Island Line Phase One EIA on Feb 19, TODAY asked MSPH and various government agencies if future EIA reports would also make their way into cyberspace.

MSPH has been engaging nature lovers and other stakeholders in its environmental study, which it previously said it expects to share by the second quarter of this year.

The goal is to ensure the rejuvenation of Mandai is accessible, sustainable and well-integrated with its surroundings, an MSPH spokesperson said.

As for government agencies, the practice has been to make physical copies of the EIAs available for public inspection by appointment. This is because EIA reports are technical documents that can be voluminous and may not be easily understandable or interesting to the layman, said the Ministry of National Development (MND).

“Agencies will consider making these reports more readily available online, especially where there is significant public interest involved, as was the case for the recent study on the Cross Island Line,” it added.

The Cross Island Line report, which was put up on Feb 19, had been accessed from about 2,300 unique IP addresses by Thursday (Feb 25), the LTA said.

Agencies that commission EIAs include the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Maritime and Port Authority.

Public inspection of EIAs allows stakeholders and members of the public to provide input and recommendations, beyond those who had been consulted earlier, said the MND.

Singapore does not have a law mandating that EIAs be conducted or made available to the public, although such studies have become more widespread in recent years. Easy public access to EIAs is important and Singapore should consider an EIA law, said environmental law and heritage experts.

“The principle behind the EIA is a simple one – ‘look before you leap!’ It is part of good governance, to have a process to carefully evaluate all possible impacts that may result from a proposed development project,” said Associate Professor Lye Lin Heng, director of the Asia-Pacific Center for Environmental Law at the National University of Singapore.

A good EIA policy should allow for public participation. “Governments often fear that allowing members of the public to respond slows down the development process. A well-drafted EIA law should give a reasonable timeframe and no more, for public response, so this fear of slowing down the development process is largely unfounded,” she added.

Environmental law expert Alan Tan Khee-Jin said posting EIAs online should be the default procedure going forward. “The result at the end of the process – whether in favour or against – can only enjoy more legitimacy by having undergone a robust, inclusive and transparent EIA deliberative process,” he said.

On issues involving the use of resources and public spaces, healthy engagement with the public is essential and strengthens the policy-making process, said Dr Kevin YL Tan, president of the International Commission on Monuments and Sites in Singapore.

EIAs and heritage impact assessments address the impact of development on things that exist, that have value, he said. “They should not be at the behest of the individual government agencies but should be compulsory in all developers’ plans, in the interest of good governance and accountability, more than anything else.”

According to a 2002 academic paper, Singapore has conducted environmental assessments since the 1980s “but generally in a random and ad hoc manner”. It was suggested that certain environmental changes, such as the separation of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve from the central water catchment area by the Bukit Timah Expressway, could have been avoided had EIA laws been enacted, wrote academics Clive Briffett and Jamie Mackee.

Last year in Parliament, then-Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee said major development projects are required to undergo EIAs, especially when they are near to sensitive areas, such as nature reserves.

“As EIAs do take significant time and resources, we apply them to projects that may most adversely impact our protected natural spaces, and coastal and marine environments,” he said.

The Government takes EIA recommendations seriously and uses the studies to finalise plans and mitigate any development impact by modifying the scale or scope of works, Mr Lee added.

Assoc Prof Lye said the LTA’s engagement of nature experts and the online release of the Cross Island Line report are steps in the right direction, but believes EIAs should be required for all projects that could have negative impact on the environment – not only those that directly impact nature areas.

“In tiny Singapore, we should be even more careful about our land use. Indeed, there is also the argument that the Government holds all lands not in private ownership, but on trust for the people. Thus, the people should be consulted as the beneficiaries, as should be mandated in an EIA law,” she added.

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