Demand for environment impact studies grows

Feng Zengkun and Grace Chua The Straits Times 24 May 14;

The concept is simple: Before you build something, study how it will affect the environment and its surroundings in detail.

While this may sound obvious, "environmental impact assessments" or EIAs have become more widespread in Singapore only in recent years.

The most high-profile EIA is an upcoming one commissioned by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to study how the Cross Island MRT Line, to be completed in 2030, will affect the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

Though the line's alignment has yet to be finalised, nature groups have called for the protection of the reserve and are concerned about the possibility of the train line being built through it.

Design and consultancy firm Aecom said "Singapore becoming denser" has led to the growing demand for such studies. "Certain developments will cause some impact on neighbouring properties or on nature areas," said Mr Mark Vergara, its country director for the environment business line.

He estimated that demand for EIAs has risen about 50 per cent compared to two to three years ago and said Aecom's "top client" has been the Government.

Nominated MP Faizah Jamal, who champions EIAs, said: "There is more consciousness now of their importance, especially after the LTA's eight-month engagement with nature groups on the Cross Island Line."

A Ministry of National Development spokesman said: "Under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) planning process, all development proposals are comprehensively assessed by relevant agencies before approval is given."

Reviewing agencies include the URA, LTA, National Parks Board, national water agency PUB, Maritime and Port Authority, National Environment Agency and Agri- Food and Veterinary Authority. They evaluate the impact on issues like the environment, traffic, and maritime navigation.

"Some of the proposals may require further studies to better understand their impact on the surroundings," the spokesman added. "In particular, EIAs are required for major development proposals if they are near sensitive areas such as nature reserves."

Activists would like legislation for EIAs to standardise when they are carried out and how rigorous they need to be. The Nature Society's environmental law and policy coordinator Vinayagan Dharmarajah said that would "force industry to up its game and give people a sense of ownership".

Ms Natalia Huang, 32, whose firm conducts animal studies for EIAs, said Singapore could follow Australia, where they have "Level 1 and Level 2 fauna assessments".

"This reflects the size, the anticipated impact, public sensitivity and previous knowledge of biodiversity" of the site.

Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law director Lye Lin-Heng said the Government "should consult the public, some of whom may have very specialised knowledge", to make well-informed decisions.