Environment clearance process undergoes major reforms

Choki Wangmo

With the reforms in environment clearance process endorsed on June 25, 17 environment clearance (EC) applications on hold at the National Environment Commission Secretariat (NECS) are expected to be approved at the soonest.

At the 53rd commission meeting, the commission introduced major reforms in the EC to ease the environment assessment process and ensure efficient and timely delivery of public services.

Major reforms are made to section 63 of the water regulation 2014 on groundwater abstraction and environmental standards 2010.

The section 63 states that groundwater abstraction may be considered permissible where there is no other alternative surface water source. However, the NEC officials said that the clause “…no other alternative surface water source” was often interpreted that the groundwater abstraction may be allowed only when there is no other alternative surface water source.

Moreover, in some areas all available surface water was not feasible or viable for purposes such as drinking and, therefore, the need for bore well water. To ensure clear interpretation in implementation of the provision, the clause is amended as: “The abstraction may be allowed where there is no other alternative viable water source”, which means that the water source should be convenient and cost-effective as compared to the alternative water source.

Out of the 17 unapproved ECs, 16 are related to groundwater abstraction.

The emission standard in the environmental standards 2010 was also amended. The emission standard includes standards for ambient air and water quality, point source emissions, work zone standard, and noise level limits.

The secretary of NECS, Sonam P Wangdi, said that with developmental activities on the rise and the changing nature of developmental projects, the current standard required revision. “There are loopholes in the old standards.”

The revised environmental standard 2020 has retained the existing parameters and incorporated missing parameters and new standards based on international best practices and limits.

New standards such as aluminium smelting unit, waste incineration, vehicle noise level limit and waste incinerator ash disposal or utilisation standards were proposed.

Emission standards are legal requirements governing pollutants released into the environment. It sets quantitative limit on the permissible amount of specific pollutants that may be released from specific sources over specific timeframes.

Other reforms include repealing clause 12 and 13 of Regulation for Environmental Clearance of Projects 2016, which requires the applicant to produce clearances from dzongkhag and thromde administrations and other relevant agencies.

The projects are classified into colour-coded lists—green, blue, and red—depending on their environmental impact and the need for EC.  Majority of the applications received by the NECS within the red category are industrial projects.

To streamline the environmental assessment (EA) process and minimise the bureaucratic burden, the secretariat has formulated EA form for red category industrial projects.

Asked if the reforms would help solve the Shingkhar-Gorgan highway conundrum, Sonam P Wangdi said that it was not that NECS did not grant the EC as generally accused but the secretariat did not receive concrete zonation map of the Phrumsengla National Park from the forest department.

Denying the delayed Jigmeling Industrial Park caused due to delay in the issuance of environment clearances, Sonam P Wangdi said that between April last year and this month, NECS received 26 EC applicants from the industrial park out of which 15 was issued the EC. Seven did not register with the commission, and one project file was closed.

The remaining applications were under review, he said.

From 2017 till date, a total of 432 applications for EC were received—393 were issued and 36 applications are pending.

The timeframe for assessment and issuance of decision on EC is 180 average working days for applications under Environment Impact Assessment level and 45 average working days for applications under Initial Environment Examination level and applications for renewal.

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