Environmental Assessment

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Environmental considerations were largely ignored for almost 200 years in the development of the United States. Only in the last third of the twentieth century did environmental factors begin to play a significant role in the speed and direction of our national progress. These factors have developed in us a new concern and recognition of the dependence that we, as human beings, have on the long-term viability of the environment for sustaining life. The new "ethic" of conservation of resources has also grown as concern for the environment has grown, because much of our environmental quality is itself a nonrenewable resource.

Human development, especially in the twentieth century, represents an intrusion into the overall balance that maintains the earth as a habitable place in the universe. We are recognizing this fact in our concern for the environment, but most of us are also reluctant to give up the profligate consumption of resources which characterizes the modern lifestyle. Thus, it is incumbent upon the human species to examine its actions and to attune to ensuring the long-term viability of earth as a habitable planet. The development of environmental impact analysis, or assessments, is a logical first step in this process. It represents an opportunity for us to consider, in decision making, the effects of actions that are not otherwise accounted for in the normal market exchange of goods and services. The adverse effects discovered in the assessment process then need to be weighed against the social, economic, and other advantages derived from a given action. The art and science of identifying and quantifying the potential benefits from a proposed action has become finely tuned. We must develop the belief that an equally clear exposition of the associated problems is equally deserving of careful study and consideration.

Blind adherence to the theory and practice of a pure economic exchange for decision making has possible long-term adverse consequences for the planet Earth. There are elements which cannot be accurately represented as monetary values. Economic guidelines for decision making were adequate as long as the effects of societal activities were insignificant when compared to the long-term suitability of the planet as a place to reside. One traditional analogy would compare the swing toward concern for environmental considerations to a pendulum that is on the verge of swinging back toward economic (i.e., cost) dominance. Is this unavoidable? This type of trade-off is essential and is one that will always be made, but humans must be aware that sacrificing long-term viability for short-term expediency is less than a bad solution; it is no solution. Serious environmental problems that surfaced following the collapse of the totalitarian regimes of eastern Europe are vivid examples.

As glasnost opened the eastern European and Soviet countries to the west during the late 1980s, it also revealed a region suffering extreme environmental degradation. In previous decades, the area had focused on centrally planned industrial development with disregard for the environmental consequences of this development. Industrialization had been the foremost priority, and production targets were to be met to the exclusion of other goals. Industries had been heavily subsidized, particularly for energy and natural resource needs, and allotments of resources and budgets had been made based on past use and expenditures. Although some countries may have had stringent environmental regulations on their books, these regulations were not enforced. Pollution fines levied by the government were small and easily paid with government subsidies. With the presence of production targets and subsidies and the absence of open markets and a realistic price structure, industries had no incentive to conserve resources, avoid pollution fines, or invest in efficient production technologies.

As a result, environmental conditions are now seriously degraded; air pollution, water pollution, hazardous wastes, and extensive impairment of agricultural land and forests are at extreme levels and among the highest in the world. Air in the region is polluted by exceptionally high levels of sulfur dioxide, due to dependence on coal burning for energy, few pollution controls, and extremely inefficient use of energy (Schultz, 1990). Rivers, lakes, and seashores are heavily polluted by industrial waste discharge and agricultural runoff; 95 percent of Polish rivers are so badly polluted that their water cannot be used directly, even for industrial purposes, because it is corrosive (Hallstrom, 1999).

Indiscriminate dumping of hazardous wastes and the use of substandard landfills have contaminated groundwater sources in the region. In addition, the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from previously occupied territories left behind substantial environmental degradation; 6 percent of Czechoslovakian territories were damaged by toxic wastes, oil, and lead (Renner, 1991). In some instances there has been enough spilled fuel available in the soil for private individuals to dig oil wells (Carter and Turnock, 1997). The Chernobyl accident of 1986 released 1000 times the radioactivity of the Three Mile Island accident, and the radiation was widely dispersed over the northern hemisphere (Flavin, 1987). Many nuclear plants in the region are of the Chernobyl type and present the danger of such an accident recurring at any time.

Inappropriate agricultural practices have eroded soils, and industrial pollution has contaminated large land areas. The land around Glu-bokoe, a nonferrous metallurgical center in northern Belorus, has 22 times the permitted level of lead, 10 times the permitted level of cobalt, and 100 times the permitted level of zinc (French, 1990). An average of 77 percent of Polish and Czech forests show signs of acid rain damage, most likely as a result of huge amounts of highly toxic dust released into the atmosphere throughout Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Poland from industrial smelter releases and brown coal combustion (Hallstrom, 1999).

The cost of this pollution to human health can be seen in lower life expectancies, higher infant mortality, and higher incidence of respiratory diseases, cancers, birth defects, and other illnesses. Nearly 60 percent of children in inner Budapest show dangerously high levels of lead in their blood (Hallstrom, 1999). Life expectancies for some regions are recognized to be 3 to 5 years less than in cleaner areas (Schultz, 1990).

But this is not the only cost of environmental degradation in the region; without a base of functioning water, land, and air resources, industrial productivity and growth are hampered. The decline in forestry and tourism industries due to damaged forests, the falling crop yields, the damage to historic buildings due to acid deposition, and the corrosion of pipes by polluted water are a few examples of real costs incurred by industrialization without separate regard for environmental consequences. It is estimated that the present state of environmental degradation, rather than providing a cheap avenue to industrial development, is costing Poland 10 to 20 percent of the gross national product (GNP) annually, and Czechoslovakia 5 to 7 percent annually. An estimated 11 percent of GNP has been expended annually in the former Soviet countries toward health costs from pollution alone (French, 1990).

The issues of economic growth, poverty, and environmental protection are intertwined in a perplexing way in today's business climate (Business Week, 1990). Lasting economic growth is based on managing natural resources in a sustainable manner. Poverty is both a cause and an effect of environmental problems. Sustainable economic growth provides both the means to address world poverty and the means to solve environmental questions. Industrialization and economic development are essential to provide basic amenities of life and to sustain and improve our standard of living. The challenge is: How to determine the direction and level of development that is not limited by what is most expedient for the present, but will benefit future generations as well as provide for the immediate needs of society.

During the past decade, the business world has become increasingly aware that sustainable development and production can, indeed, be good for business. With the passage of the Pollution Prevention Act (PPA) of 1990, pollution prevention was declared to be the nation's primary pollution control strategy, and a hierarchical system for pollution management was developed, with source reduction at the top of the hierarchy, followed by recycling, treatment, and disposal. Increased support for pollution prevention practices has allowed industry to realize that waste reduction, recycling, conservation, and pollution control can also be tied to lower production costs. Furthermore, a public image as an environmentally responsible company can be essential in gaining community acceptance, attracting top employees, and securing the trust of investors. This "corporate environmentalism," as it has been termed by Edgar S. Woolard, Jr., the CEO of Du Pont, when coupled with the managerial skills and productive capacity commanded by business, appropriately places corporations in a position of leadership in moving toward sustainable use of earth's resources (Business Week, 1990).

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