Proposed reforms to Environmental Protection Agency a bid to make regulator more proactive in prosecuting companies for environmental breaches
The Victorian government has announced a $45m overhaul of the Environmental Protection Agency in a bid to make the regulator more proactive in prosecuting companies for environmental breaches.
The new model would see the Andrews government adopt 40 of the 48 recommendations made in 10-month-long review into the EPA, which found it was too slow to respond to reported breaches and lacked the resources to effectively enforce conditions imposed on industry and developers.
It includes $6.5m to fund more investigators, environmental protection officers, and lawyers; $4.8m to establish a network of local government environmental protection officers; $4.8m to expand the environmental public health team; and $2.4m for a public database of sites that pose a legacy contamination risk.
The funding, and the two packages of legislative reform designed to modernise the Environmental Protection Act 1970, would be introduced in the next 18 months, before the 2018 state election.
The environment minister, Lily D’Ambrosio, said the proposed reforms would “ensure the EPA maintains its status as a world-leading environmental regulator”.
Among the seven recommendations not enacted in full, but supported in principle, were a recommendation to strengthen the rights of third-party litigants to mount legal challenges against breaches of environmental laws, and a recommendation that the EPA be given a stronger role in the enforcement and compliance of environmental conditions on mining licences. That is currently managed by Earth Resources Regulation.
The chief executive of Environment Victoria, Mark Wakeham, said while the proposed reforms were a positive step, it was disappointing the EPA was not given a stronger role in enforcing mining activities.
“Our issue is the mining regulators have often been too close to the industry and in some cases have been proponents of the industry by doing thing like offering licenses for coal,” he said. “There has been a series of catastrophic failures of Victorian mines, at Hazelwood and Yallourn, so we think there’s a way to go in this area.”
Wakeham said it was also disappointing that the reforms didn’t give the EPA a greater role in regulating carbon emissions, or in mitigating climate change.
The government has acknowledged the EPA is able to regulate carbon emissions, but has has not set that as a policy directive.
“If the EPA is going to be a truly modern regulator, it needs to be able to regulate carbon emissions,” Wakeham said.
He said concerns raised by business groups that strengthening the prosecutorial arm of the EPA could cause developments to get tied up in the courts was unfounded, saying the court would still be able to dismiss cases brought by vexatious litigants.
Tim Piper, the Victorian director of the Australian Industry Group, told Fairfax Media that: “Excessive third-party intervention could turn the separate and otherwise sensible proposal for a general duty of environmental protection into a recipe for crippling ‘lawfare’ against economic development.”
Nicola Rivers, the director of advocacy and research from Environmental Justice Australia, said the rights to third-party litigants set out under the proposed reforms did not go as far as similar laws in New South Wales.
Rivers said allowing third-party enforcement of environmental laws was a failsafe to ensure that enforcement does occur, saying that even with the promised increase in resources the EPA may not decide to prosecute all cases.
She said modernising the Environmental Protection Authority Act, with its forest of accompanying regulations and policy documents, would make things easier for both industry and community groups, who are currently trying to wade through the “vague, discretionary language” of the original legislation.
“It’s hard for anyone to know what the EPA is supposed to do,” Rivers said. “If you weren’t an expert [in the EPA Act] there’s no way you would be able to understand it.”
The EPA was established under Liberal Victorian premier Henry Bolte in 1971.
The Coalition did not respond to a request for comment on the proposed legislation.
By Calla Wahlquist
This piece was originally published by Guardian Australia on 19 January 2017