The new laws focus on providing greater access to information and justice when it comes to the environment and protecting the health of Victorians.
Victorians expect to understand where there may be contamination from historic activities, the risks it may pose and that clean-up has been undertaken to appropriately manage the risks to human health and the environment.
The legislation introduces reforms to enable the actions of EPA and persons in management or control of land to be more proportionate to the risks posed by contaminated land (including groundwater). This will reduce costs to consumers, businesses and government.
Duties for Contaminated Land
The Act establishes a duty to manage contaminated land.
The Duty to Manage creates an obligation on persons in management or control of land to minimise risks of harm to human health and the environment from the contamination. This includes obligations to:
- Identify any contamination a person should reasonably know about and assess that contamination;
- Manage the contamination by minimising the risks to human health and the environment so far as reasonably practicable;
- Notify people who may be affected by the contamination.
EPA will provide guidance on how to meet these obligations.
The Act also establishes a new duty to notify of contaminated land.
The Duty to Notify requires a person in management or control of land to notify the EPA as soon as practicable if the contamination may pose a significant risk to human health or the environment.
Contamination will be notifiable if it meets criteria set out in the legislation and any future regulations.
Under the current Environment Protection Act 1970, environmental audits are a one-size-fits-all assessment process that sometimes involves unnecessarily detailed investigation and excessive costs.
The new legislation will establish a more flexible two-stage process:
- Preliminary risk screen (PRS) assessment: a rapid, low cost assessment for contaminated land based on a desktop study and site inspection, which may include sampling. The focus of a PRS is to determine if a detailed audit is necessary.
- Scaled audit: to assess and manage the risks of harm to human health and the environment from contamination or industrial activities. Scaled audits would often be more cost effective than current audits as the PRS would help environmental auditors focus the audit on material risks. A scaled audit may result in remedial action being taken to manage risks to human health and the environment posed by a site or industrial activity.
This will ensure sites which do not have significant contamination risks can be assessed more quickly and cheaply.
The legislation includes ‘Better Environment Plans’ to enable EPA to recognise innovative approaches to environmental protection. EPA’s endorsement of plans will be an important recognition of and support to that positive action by the partners.
Better Environment Plans could be used in many ways, for example:
- A business that is working to remediate a portfolio of contaminated sites could seek EPA’s endorsement of a plan that manages the clean up over an agreed timescale, making sure the most significant risks are addressed first.
- Businesses operating within an industrial estate could develop a plan to reduce the collective impact on air quality from that estate’s activities.
Through the Independent Inquiry into the EPA, stakeholders reported that access to information about the environment is very important, including in helping to make decisions about their health and the environment.
The legislation introduces requirements to make environmental information more transparent and accessible.
These changes mean:
- The EPA will be required to establish and maintain a Public Register of information such as licences, permits, registrations, environmental audits, Site Management Orders and Better Environment Plans;
- Holders of licences (and other permissions tools as appropriate) could be required by the EPA to make certain environmental information available;
- EPA will be able to easily obtain the information it needs to make regulatory decisions (for example, whether to issue a licence);
- EPA will be able to share information with other regulators and government bodies, to better enforce the law and inform decision-making.
For the first time in Victoria, community members directly affected by alleged breaches of the new environment protection laws will be able to seek action through a court to remedy or restrain the breach.
Community rights will help to ensure EPA is held to account in the way it enforces the laws.