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Environmental Impact Statements Need To Be Made Easier To Decipher

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The average person can't make heads or tails of the typical environmental impact statement, according to a study that examined reading comprehension about a simple project in the nation's heartland.

However, simple editing and the inclusion of "before and after" visuals increased individual understanding dramatically in a subsequent study.

"When citizens can't understand the material presented in an EIS [environmental impact statement], they can't participate in the process," said William Sullivan, a professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois. "An agency that fails to produce an EIS that citizens can understand opens itself to lawsuits."

To test the understanding level of an EIS -- a document supposedly written at a 10th-grade reading level -- U. of I. researchers traveled to Joliet, Ill., to see how well 113 high school students understood the Hickory Creek flood-improvement project of the Illinois Department of Transportation. They gave students the project description to read, then tested students' recall of basic facts, understanding of the main points of the project and comprehension of potential environmental effects.

Their average scores: 42 percent correct on basic facts; 40 percent on the main points; and 57.5 percent on potential environmental changes. Mathematical chance would have resulted in correct responses of 20 percent, 33 percent and 50 percent, respectively, the researchers noted.

"These are clearly failing marks," Sullivan said. "The understanding level achieved by this document was nothing less than awful. The results strongly say the situation is tremendously ineffective and needs considerable attention."

Reporting in a recent issue of the Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Sullivan and Frances E. Kuo, a visiting professor, and Mona Prabhu, a graduate student in landscape architecture, wrote that "not only did the E
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Contact: Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
b-james3@uiuc.edu
217-333-5802
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
6-Dec-1996


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