In Victoria, the Environment Protection Authority is the government agency responsible for dealing with pollution. One of the ways the EPA does this is by issuing works approvals and licences, which are essentially permissions to pollute Victorians’ environments. These decisions should not be made without the people who will be affected by the pollution having a say.
Two matters which the EDO has recently been involved in demonstrate that public participation can improve decision-making, but that public participation in EPA decisions is not guaranteed by law.
The EDO recently represented the Western Region Environment Centre Inc in a mediation in VCAT about an extension to a landfill, in a coal mine in Bacchus Marsh. The community were able to participate in the mediation because the EPA and the works approval applicant agreed that they could, which is unusual. The law does not provide the public with an automatic right to participate.
The mediation resulted in a series of conditions that addressed the community’s concerns about the landfill. These concerns related to local environmental issues such as groundwater contamination, litter and fire safety. Other conditions included on the approval will provide for better communication and information sharing between the community and the operators of the landfill.
These conditions would not have been included on the works approval had the mediation not occurred and the applicant not agreed to them. The EPA had not originally proposed to put these conditions on the works approval, even though that they were aware of community concerns. The EDO and our client was pleased with the outcome – as a result of the community’s participation, several local environmental issues were better addressed in the approval. The other benefit of members of the public being involved is that the process became relevant to them, and showed that the ‘system’ had the ability to fix their concerns, which is important if the public is to have faith in our laws and the regulator, in this case the EPA.
In another matter, the EPA was considering a works approval from ESSO for a gas conditioning plant that will emit 1 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The application was not made available online and was not provided in full to concerned community members who asked Council and the EPA for a copy. The difficulty of getting hold of the documents and being informed of what was going on engendered cynicism in the community and distrust of the process. On behalf of a local community group we wrote to the EPA requesting that the proposal be advertised. EPA has since agreed to do so, although the law does not require them to do so.
As these matters shows, public participation is worthwhile because it can improve outcomes and improves public faith in the process and the regulator. The Environment Protection Act needs to be changed to ensure the community finds out about proposals that will affect them, and require the EPA to give the community a meaningful say.