During the summer break, Barry Buffier quietly announced his resignation as chief executive and chair of the NSW Environment Protection Authority. The Herald reported that Buffier’s resignation came after a year of “intense scrutiny”. In fact, Buffier’s six years holding the EPA’s top two roles were years of sustained scrutiny and frequent criticism. Buffier – and the EPA under his leadership – came to be known as a toothless environmental tiger, captured by polluters and the corporations that harm the state’s environment.
With new leadership, the EPA might now live up to its mission of protecting communities and the natural environment. As Buffier departs, it is timely to analyse his legacy.
Buffier’s management of the state’s air environment has been the source of particular criticism. Under his watch, particle pollution from the state’s 30-odd open-cut coal mines trebled. Coarse particle pollution (PM10) from explosions, digging, hauling, dumping and wheel dust causes up to 80 air pollution alerts a month in the Hunter Valley. Despite an excellent air pollution monitoring network that provides community members with immediate access to data and pollution alerts, Buffier’s EPA team have failed to regulate this powerful polluter.
So, too, the authority has failed to control emissions of toxic gases and fine particle pollution (PM2.5) from power stations and motor vehicles, the state’s main sources of these pollutants.
On his watch, a controversial study of air pollution from uncovered coal trains in Newcastle, the world’s largest coal export port, had its findings revised to dismiss the conclusion that uncovered coal wagons cause elevated levels of particle pollution in densely populated suburbs and that they should be covered. To this day, Newcastle’s coal trains remain uncovered.
As the state’s most powerful environmental officer, Buffier’s philosophy was that environmental regulation should only be introduced when the benefits outweigh the cost. In the case of air pollution, he was unwilling to instruct the coal industry to pay a paltry $5 to $10 per wagon per trip for a mechanical lid, defying the recommendations of a 2013 Senate inquiry.
Air pollution in the Hunter Valley causes an estimated $600 million in health costs each year, but this cost is borne by the community. Under Buffier, community members were compelled to prove environmental harm and could not rely on the EPA as an ally. On the few occasions that polluters were penalised for breaching their EPA licences, the fines were paltry.
Buffier leaves three key policies in limbo. The state’s load-based licensing system that charges polluters for each tonne of toxic pollution has been under review since 2015. Critics of the scheme suggest these fees need to be as much as 50 times higher to motivate polluters. The NSW air pollution control strategy has been “in development” since 2016, with no decisive measures proposed yet. And new standards for sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen are 20 years overdue. In the meantime, the state’s five ageing coal-fired power stations operate on outdated licences that provide no impetus for pollution control.
Buffier should not be replaced by one bureaucrat, no matter how knowledgeable or experienced. Extraordinarily, he was both chair of the EPA and its chief executive. His “two hats” were the subject of scrutiny by a bipartisan parliamentary inquiry which recommended in 2015 that the EPA legislation be amended to appoint a chair independent of the chief executive. The Victorian EPA made this change several years ago. In 2016, then-environment minister Mark Speakman committed to reviewing this arrangement, but nothing has changed.
We look to Premier Berejiklian to appoint two excellent new environmental watchdogs.
By Dr James Whelan, researcher and community organiser, Environmental Justice Australia
Published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 January 2018