Responsibility for environmental studies for private and public projects is to be handed over to prefectures and municipalities, according to a Public Works and Environment Ministry bill scheduled to be passed by Parliament this month. However, although decentralizing these procedures is considered to be a positive step, it remains unknown which prefectures or municipalities – particularly the smaller ones – have the necessary infrastructure to evaluate these environmental reports or to monitor the way they are carried out. Moreover, environmental studies are not mandatory for all projects or activities. Those classified as «second grade» projects do not require one. Public Works Minister Vasso Papandreou, in announcing the changes this week, said they were aimed at simplifying and unifying procedures for issuing permits, a process that is expected to speed up procedures for the some 396 applications still pending. However, it was not clear whether accelerating these applications would be detrimental to the environment. Among the provisions of the new bill is the amendment to law 1650/86, which adapts the process of granting environmental permits to European Union legislation (directives 97/11 and 96/61). In fact, Greece is to appear in the European Court on March 5 for its failure to amend its legislation accordingly. The bill is also designed to eliminate the weaknesses in the process observed since its introduction. «There can be no development or new investment without environmental protection, but environmental policy has to take into account the need for development. In every policy, one has to find the golden mean between the two equally important goals,» said Papandreou. There are two important changes in the new bill. Until now, private or state projects first had to obtain preliminary approval of the plans and only then apply for approval of the report on the project’s environmental effects. The new bill abolishes the preliminary approval, replacing it with the first phase of the unified environmental permit. There will no longer be simply three classifications of projects as today, but there will be further sub-categories and groups, in order to allow for more specialization of studies and for more delegation of responsibility. Thus projects in the first category, that is with major effects on the environment, will still need approval from a central authority, but provision is made for decisions to be assigned to regional general secretaries. Projects in the second category, with moderate environmental effects, are subject to the approval of the prefect, who may delegate responsibility to the municipality if it has the necessary infrastructure. Municipalities have sole responsibility for third-category projects. The first phase of the new, unified process will be made public so as to achieve maximum transparency. Approval must be granted in 90 days, compared to the current 60 days. However, fines for violating environmental legislation will be raised from 260,000 euros to 500,000. The new bill also amends provisions, in force since 1979, on the definition of watercourses, for which it will no longer be sufficient simply to produce a diagram indicating the outline. A technical report, including data on hydrological, drainage and environmental factors, will be required. The local prefectural administration will be responsible for monitoring this work, but it may assign the job to the local municipality if the appropriate infrastructure is available. Papandreou said that another bill with provisions for other issues related to watercourses would be ready soon. Definition of watercourses is a condition for including areas in town plans, so the bill is likely to make way for the approval of many zoning plans that have been frozen for that very reason.