Independent review of the Victorian EPA released

Released yesterday, the report of the Independent Inquiry of the Environment Protection Authority, contains welcome recommendations for far reaching reforms to environment protection in Victoria.

We welcomed Environment Minister Lisa Neville’s commitment to conduct this review, and we have been pleased to be involved.

Last year we listed ten issues that we thought the Inquiry needed to address.  We’re still digesting the report (all 452 pages of it!).  For now, here’s our initial impressions against our top ten issues.

As you can see we’re mostly pretty impressed.  It’s now over to the government to develop their response to the Inquiry’s recommendations

1. Embed environmental justice in the law.

We asked that ‘environmental justice’ be embedded in our environmental protection laws and explicitly recognised as a guiding principle.  The inquiry has not gone that far, however they have recommended that the government develop a ‘whole-of-government’ environmental justice strategy.  The inquiry has also recommended a number of changes to the legislation that would help environmental justice in practice including broadening appeal rights and creating a public right to enforce pollution protection laws – overall pretty promising.

2. Introduce a general duty not to pollute.

Many Victorians would be surprised to hear that there is no overarching obligation to avoid causing pollution in Victoria.   The review recommends that such a duty be introduced, expressed as a duty to ‘take reasonable steps to minimise the risk of harm from pollution’.  They’ve also said the duty should be enforceable.  This is one where the wording and implementation will be important – any legislative reforms here will need to be carefully scrutinised to make sure they are more than empty rhetoric.

3. Regulate carbon pollution.

While The EPA can regulate greenhouse emissions, the provisions are not as strong as they could be and their mandate unclear.  The inquiry agreed that this situation is unsatisfactory and needs to be fixed.  The inquiry did not outright recommend that the EPA strengthen their greenhouse gas regulation, but that the government clarify what the EPA’s role should be in regulation carbon pollution.

4. Significantly strengthen community right to know and access to information.

We called for all information held by the EPA to be available to the public with limited exceptions where these are fair and necessary, and for data on environmental quality to be regularly published by the EPA. The review agreed with greater access and transparency in principle, stating that it should be incorporated into EPA’s objectives, but our first impression on is that the recommendations are a little short specifics on what this would mean – something to review more carefully.

5. EPA should enforce the law, but affected communities should be able step in when the EPA won’t.

The review agreed that communities should have a right to take legal action to stop environmental harm by a polluter, or force them to remedy pollution they have caused.  While it should not be up to citizens to enforce the law, they should be able to do so where the EPA fails.  This recommendation would bring Victoria into line with other states such as NSW and would be a major step forward.

6. A more powerful role for the EPA in land use planning decisions.

The review agreed that the EPA should have a much greater role in strategic land use planning and setting planning controls, and that there is a strong expectation that the EPA be at the table in these decisions.  Quite what this means in practice will need some careful scrutiny to ensure that the EPA has sufficient powers and the resources to do the job effectively.

7. Better clean up of dirty mine sites.

The review recommends that the EPA have a much stronger role throughout the mining regulation lifecycle, including mining rehabilitation to ensure the community is protected and mining companies are clearly responsible for mine site rehabilitation. It recommended the EPA take over the environmental aspects of mining regulation from the Earth Resources Department, a welcome recommendation.

8. A strong, independent and well-funded EPA.

The review agreed that the EPA’s reliance on funding from levies on waste was inappropriate and inadequate and strongly recommended the government implement a range of changes to funding to make it stronger and less liable to conflict of interest.  Unfortunately the government has immediately quashed this recommendation, stating it would not change funding arrangements.

The review also recommended measures to make the EPA stronger and more independent, with legislative reform to improve and modernise governance arrangements and better coordinate environment protection between agencies.

The inquiry also recommends the creation of a new role – The Office of the Chief Environmental Scientist, part of a broader endorsement for EPA to have strong science and technical expertise.

9. A clearer role for the EPA on issues that affect our health and wellbeing.

The review recommends a greater and clearer role for the EPA in protecting human health, including protection of human health as a specific legislated objective, to reduce the harm from pollution and waste.   The review also recommends better clarity around the roles and responsibilities of different agencies dealing with issues like asbestos and noise pollution, with improved coordination .

10. A strong focus on regulation and enforcement.

The review recognised the importance of the EPA being a strong and effective regulator and recommended it improve its prosecution capability, and use its other enforcement powers more readily and more quickly.

We’ll update this quick analysis once we have had a chance to digest the full report.  Overall however, we think that the review has lived up to our expectations as a once in a generation opportunity to improve environmental protection in Victoria.   We commend the government and the Environment Minister for commissioning the independent review – they key test now will be whether the government adopts the recommendations.

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