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 EIS materials fail to communicate an adequate level of understanding to the students as a whole, they also failed to communicate an adequate understanding to the very best readers."
As a follow-up study, as yet unpublished, researchers presented 132 Joliet high school students revised EIS documents that had been edited to present the same material more clearly and with computer-generated simulated photos that gave "before and after" views of proposed changes. Understanding levels jumped to more than 80 percent in each of the three areas of comprehension measured in the initial tests.
"The results offer considerable hope for citizen involvement in the EIS process," Kuo said. "Although the original project description yielded very little understanding, the two modifications had consistently positive and substantial effects on understanding."