IMAGINEMAG! Editor Amy Gould has invited me to write some articles on my work in environmental science. I thank her for this opportunity. This installment is a quick overview of South Africa’s National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998 (NEMA for short)and similarities with the United States’ National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. We’ll also take a look at environmental justice.
Some Acts were signed into effect prior to or after NEMA, such as1984’s Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act,the Environment Conservation Act of 1989 (Act No. 73 of 1989); the National Water Act, 1998 (Act No. 36 of 1998); the World Heritage Convention Act, 1999 (Act No. 49 of 1999),National Heritage Resources Act (Act. No. 25 of 1999), the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, 2003 (Act No. 57 of 2003); the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, 2004 (Act No. 10 of 2004); or the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act, 2004 (Act No. 39 of 2004), the National Environmental Management: Integrated Coastal Management Act, 2008 (Act No. 24 of 2008); and the National Environmental Management: Waste Act, 2008 (Act No. 59 of 2008); All are now either part of NEMA or are in close cooperation with NEMA agencies and have their own agencies set up to work with project planners.
Sustainable land use planning and working to assure public safety and healththrough waste management and control of pollution are the substance of the Act. This includes on a day to day basis, permits and authorizations for mine closures and mine operations, use of pesticides, the transport, storage and disposal of hazardous substances,international trade of animals and plants and their parts in cooperation with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and the alteration of wetlands and streams. Noise ordinances are another day to day implementation.
Another day to day activity is the completion and afterward the Environmental Overview of Environmental Impact Assessment documents for specific proposed activities. The documents are usually prepared by scientists under the employ of companies that make this a specialty.The primary purpose of Environmental Impact Assessments is to determine and evaluate what impacts a proposed development can have so that a number of stakeholders can be brought in to assist in project level decision making. The Environmental Overview is done by various agencies and often nongovernmental organizations. In South Africa, the National Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism published a Guideline Document on Strategic Environmental Assessments in 2000, providing, among other assistance, guidance on the examination of alternatives to the proposed project. This is to urge project proponents to think more carefully about how they might reduce impacts.
We in the United States do something similar in our environmental documents for projects. Each document addresses air, noise, floodplains, agricultural areas, cultural (historic) resources, threatened and endangered species and many other concerns, including some regulated concerns that might be specific to the project. For example, a project involving dredging sand off shore to add it to a beach to slow erosion from repeated severe windstorms would involve coordination with agencies that regulate marine commercial and noncommercial fisheries resources. All NEPA documents here in the United States involve an analysis of environmental justice. South Africa’s NEMA provides this too.
NEMA provides that “environmental justice must be pursued so that adverse environmental impacts shall not be distributed in such a manner as to unfairly discriminate against any person, particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged persons”.
When I write environmental documents for projects that seek approvals and authorizations under the National Environmental Policy Act, I also analyze potential “environmental justice” impacts, whether the project may have an unintended adverse impact on vulnerable populations. What does this mean in non-technical terms?
Historically, lands that are near navigable rivers and harbors, railroads or other forms of ground level transport have been chosen by industries so they could get their raw materials to their facilities, and their finished products to markets, in the most practical way. Road and railroad designers favored less expensive lands when possible. These lands were less desired by the wealthier populations, who tended to buy lands for their residences that were quieter, cleaner, flooded much less often, and close to the recreation and agricultural resources they favored. This meant that economically disadvantaged persons in cities and towns were left with buying or renting the land nearer the industrial or transportation centers with the most pollution and flooding. In the United States when we say “she was born on the wrong side of the tracks”, this is an old expression referring to this social phenomenon.
The idea behind environmental justice is that in future land use planning, this trend does not continue. I and other environmental scientists dig deep to learn if the proposed construction blocks any disadvantaged persons from their accustomed access to work or recreation or forces them to detour to reach them; whether a vital social service is delayed from reaching them (such as the local fire brigade station), or whether their ability to harvest plant products (wood for their stoves, for example) or harvest fish to supplement their diet is being restricted or reduced and take appropriate measures to avoid adverse impacts.
For Further Reading
Bass, Ronald E., Albert I. Herson and Kenneth M. Bogdan. 2009. The NEPA Book: A Step-by-step Guide on how to Comply with the National Environmental Policy Act 2 . The University of Michigan 475 pages.
The National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998
Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. 2004. Integrated Environmental Management Series: Strategic Environmental Assessment. Private Bag X447 Pretoria 0001 South Africa