Let's hope the Vic EPA gets to keep its teeth

The Environment Protection Authority Victoria now has more clout to prevent environmental pollution rather than respond to it – and it’s getting $45.5 million over the next two years to do the job.

In the first major revamp since the environmental watchdog was established 45 years ago, the Victorian Government this week released a five-year reform program and funding package.

The funds will kick start reforms over the next two years including:

  • a major overhaul of the state’s 46-year-old legislative framework for environment protection, strengthening the EPA’s independence
  • the appointment of a chief environmental scientist
  • $6.5 million to hold polluters to account with more investigators, environmental protection officers and lawyers
  • $4.8 million to pilot a network of local government environment protection officers to tackle local noise, odour and dust issues that impact liveability
  • $4.8 million to build an expanded, specialist environmental public health team
  • $3.3 million to deliver technology improvements, including a new digital strategy
  • $2.4 million to develop a database of legacy contamination risks
  • $1.5 million to strengthen EPA’s role in strategic land use planning
  • better access to information and data for businesses and communities, including more online services.

A new interim advisory board has been appointed to guide the reforms.

The EPA was criticised for its handling of the 2014 Hazelwood coal mine fire and the shocking air quality produced in Morwell as a result. The subsequent independent inquiry into the regulator made 48 recommendations for change.

Victorian Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio said the reforms demonstrated the government’s support of all recommendations (40 fully, seven in principle, one in part) of the inquiry, which was completed in March 2016.

We’re building a stronger, more modern and better-resourced EPA to protect Victoria’s environment

“These changes will ensure the EPA maintains its status as a world-leading environmental regulator,” she said. “We’re building a stronger, more modern and better-resourced EPA to protect Victoria’s environment now and into the future.”

EPA chief executive officer Nial Finegan said the organisation was committed to delivering on the vision of a stronger regulator, better equipped to meet emerging environmental challenges including a changing climate and growing population.

He said the overhaul of Victoria’s legislative framework for environment protection would strengthen the EPA and, importantly, introduce a risk-based preventative model for environmental regulation.

“The new framework will give EPA greater powers to use its statutory tools to prevent harm to the environment occurring, rather than after it has occurred,” he said.

Property Council for Victoria executive director Sally Capp said as liveability was foundational in building successful communities, the Property Council was supportive of the EPA’s aims.

“At first glance, we like the reforms announced in relation to legacy contamination and response processes and believe they will bring efficiencies that reduce ongoing costs,” she said.

“We look forward to working with the [Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning] to improve consistency and clarity, and make the EPA more relevant, responsive as well as understanding of stakeholders needs.”

…the regulator has lacked the necessary powers to deal with the big environmental challenges of our time

Environment Victoria chief executive officer Mark Wakeham welcomed the long-overdue reforms, and said that in recent years the regulator has lacked the necessary powers to deal with the big environmental challenges of our time.

“These proposed reforms will modernise our environmental watchdog and improve the state’s environment,” he said.

“Everybody knows that prevention is better than cure, and we welcome this re-framing of the EPA’s work, which puts the onus on polluters to prevent harm.”

Despite the comprehensive suite of measures, Mr Wakeham pointed out that it remained unclear how the EPA would be involved in dealing with climate change.

“We hope the EPA’s regulatory powers on greenhouse gases will be clarified when the Andrews government releases its imminent Climate Change Framework, which will set pollution reduction targets for the state,” he said.

Industry group says changes risk a “fair” system

The Australian Industry Group was less supportive, with Victorian head Tim Piper saying the reforms were undermined by initiatives that would devolve enforcement and encourage litigation, putting at risk a “fair and predictable system to plan around”.

“The government foreshadows devolving EPA enforcement powers for some matters to local government. Industry would be concerned as this could lead to arbitrary and inconsistent practices. The EPA is best placed to do its own job and be held responsible for the results,” Mr Piper said.

He also said extending third party standing rules could hamper economic development.

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.”