Department of Environment resists health clause in planning reform


A Department of Health proposal to replace Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) with Environmental Health Impact Assessments (EHIAs) is being resisted by the Department of Environment.

The recommendation is one of a number contained in a draft environmental health action plan for Ireland entitled A Shared Vision for Quality of Life.

In the draft plan, the Department of Health argues that health impact assessment is a way to enable more effective decision-making for improving the quality of life in the general population, and should contribute to redressing inequalities in health.

However, the Department of Environment said it could not accept the recommendation that the "system of EIA would become a system of Environmental Health Impact Assessment" because the current assessment requirements already reflect "health-related issues".

It is believed that such a change, if adopted, would result in more stringent planning legislation.

The Department of Health would neither comment specifically on the proposed change of EIAs to EHIAs nor on the Department of the Environment's resistance to the proposal.

A spokesman said he could only comment on the draft environmental health plan in general. He said it concerned the role of the "whole of Government" in relation to health, not just the Department of Health, and that it was due for discussion among a Cabinet sub-committee in January.

He could not give a time-scale for the action plan but said that it was a "gradual on-going process" which could possibly affect planning legislation.

For example, under the proposals, if an incinerator was being planned, the human health impact would have to be taken into account, he said.

As a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Ireland made a commitment to preparing a National Environmental Health Action Plan (NEHAP) in 1994. The current draft plan follows a proposal which was published by the Department of Health in 1999.

Environmental health is defined by the WHO as "those aspects of human health, including quality of life, that are determined by chemical, physical, biological, social and psycho-social factors in the environment".

The Department of Health spokesman said the proposed environmental health action plan would require all Government policies to be "health-proofed".

Mr Ian Lumley, spokesman for the environmental organisation An Taisce, said the proposed amendments to EIA legislation "would be very welcome as health is a major grey area under current legislation with both An Bord Pleanála and the EPA failing to address health issues, particularly in relation to telecommunications instalments".

A Department of Environment spokeswoman said "human beings" are among the "factors" which must be considered when the "direct and indirect effects of a project" are being "identified, described and assessed" according to current EIA legislation. She also pointed out that this legislation also states that the interactions between people and other factors such as soil, water and air must be considered at present.

A further reason why the Department of Environment could not accept the proposal to amend EIAs to EHIAs, she said, was because the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines on EIAs already deal with health and safety.

The guidelines state: "Health can be affected by a number of direct and indirect environmental pathways - air, water or soil". The evaluation of effects (for example from contaminants or irritants) on air, water and soil "is carried out by reference to known standards (usually internationally) of safety in dose, exposure or risk" and thus "provides robust and reliable health protectors for analysis relating to the environment".

"Where anxieties about human healthcare are understood to be of particular concern", the EPA guidelines continue, "the scope of EIS should ensure that observance of and reliance upon conformity with standards is adequately related to the specific health and safety topic ... of local concern."

Mr Lumley of An Taisce said that despite "the requirement to address 'human beings' in EIAs, you often just get guff from developers about the number of jobs under this section".