Any human activity impacts the environment, whereas the impact of some activities may be significant. One possibility to prevent negative consequences is to assess the impact of the activity before performing it.
Environmental impact assessment is a means of the management of the environment which is meant to help decision-makers so that they and other interested parties could assess the consequences of the decisions. Environmental impact is assessed if significant environmental impact may potentially arise from the proposed activity or implementation of a strategic planning document; in certain cases, initiating the assessment is required by law, but in many cases, it is a matter of discretionary decision (the significance of the arising impact is assessed in the course of preliminary estimate).
The objective of the environmental impact assessment is to explain, describe and assess the potential impact of the proposed activity on the environment, to analyse the possibilities of preventing or alleviating the impact thereof, to make proposals for finding a more suitable solution and to allow the impact assessment results to be used in the making of final decisions.
Environmental impact assessments are divided into two:
- environmental impact assessment (EIA) which generally begins in the course of the proceedings of the application for development consent and the results of which are taken into account upon making a decision to grant or not to grant development consent;
- strategic environmental assessment (SEA) which is carried out upon preparing strategic planning documents (for example, plans, development plans, strategies, etc.).
If significant impact on the Natura 2000 site may potentially arise from the proposed activity or implementation of a strategic planning document, a so-called Natura assessment needs to be carried out in the course of environmental impact assessment or strategic environmental assessment. If the proposed activity or the strategic planning document probably has transboundary impact, the affected state has to be included in the environmental impact assessment or a transboundary environmental impact assessment has to be carried out.
The legal bases and procedure of environmental impact assessment and strategic environmental assessment is provided by the Environmental Impact Assessment and Environmental Management System Act. The strategic environmental assessment that is conducted in the course of preparing a spatial plan is subject to the procedural requirements arising from the Planning Act, requirements of the content of the strategic environmental assessment and of other conditions stem from the Environmental Impact Assessment and Environmental Management System Act.
The Environmental Board performs the duties of a decision-maker (issuer of development consent) and an authority concerned. The Environmental Board is a decision-maker in the proceedings of an application for some so-called environmental permits (for example, waste permit, permit for mining mineral resources, etc.) by carrying out the entire environmental impact assessment proceeding and by checking the compliance of the environmental impact assessment programme and the report with the established requirements and the sufficiency of the content of the programme and the report. If another authority is the decision-maker (for example, local government upon the proceeding of the application for building permit), then the Environmental Board as an authority concerned provides opinions and approvals in the course of the environmental impact assessment (draft preliminary estimate and also the environmental impact assessment programme and the report) which the decision-maker can take into account.
In the course of the environmental impact assessment, the Environmental Board provides opinions on the draft preliminary estimate and the terms of reference of the strategic environmental assessment (programme or intention of development) and approvals of the plan and the strategic environmental assessment report.
In the case of environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments initiated before 1 July 2015, the Environmental Board also performs the obligations of supervision of environmental impact assessment/strategic environmental assessment by checking the correctness of all the proceedings of environmental impact assessments/strategic environmental assessments and by assessing the compliance of the programme and the report with the requirements of the legislation and the sufficiency of the content of the programme and the report.
Photo: Toomas Kalda