Duty to notify contamination set to change

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Image:  EPA, West Footscray Fire

What is the issue?

At the present time, Victoria has the most limited duty to notify pollution or contamination.  That will soon change.

Currently, the obligation to report pollution or contamination is limited to environmental auditors engaged to undertake a statutory environmental audit where there is an imminent environmental hazard, and under some waste discharge licences issued under the Environment Protection Act 1970.

In addition, any annual report by directors submitted under the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) must report on whether the entity’s operations have been subject to significant and particular state or Commonwealth environmental regulation and how the entity has performed.

From 1 December 2020, or sooner if proclaimed, Victoria will join other states in imposing a specific duty to report on ‘notifiable contamination’ to the EPA under the Environment Protection Act 2017 (new Act).  Notifiable contamination includes contamination for which the reasonable cost of action to remediate the land is likely to exceed $50,000.[1]

It would be prudent to obtain advice now on the duty to notify EPA of contamination before the new Act commences.  The new Act applies to land that is contaminated before or after commencement.[2]

What does it mean for me?

The new duty to notify contamination applies to a person in management or control of land.  EPA must be notified if the land has been contaminated by notifiable contamination as soon as practicable after the person becomes aware of the notifiable contamination, or reasonably should have become aware of the notifiable contamination.

The test of whether a person in management or control of land becomes aware, or reasonably should have become aware, of notifiable contamination is determined with reference to:

  • The person’s skills, knowledge and experience;
  • Whether the person could practicably seek advice regarding the contamination; and
  • Any other circumstances of the contamination.[3]

The duty applies to a person in management or control of land, including government land managers and corporate land managers.

The penalties are up to $19,342 for a natural person or $96,714 for a body corporate.  Significantly, the new Act purports to abrogate the privilege against self incrimination.[4]

What are the existing reporting duties?

Currently, all directors of companies (other than small companies limited by guarantee and small proprietary companies) required to submit an annual report under the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) must give details of the company’s performance in relation to environmental regulation.[5]  This reporting obligation is triggered if the entity’s operations are subject to ‘any particular and significant environmental regulation’ under a law of the Commonwealth or of a State or Territory.[6]  The company’s performance must be detailed.

Accordingly, it would appear that any notification of significant contamination to the EPA under the new Act must also be reported on by directors in their annual report.

When does the new duty arise?

The circumstances in which a duty to notify a pollution incident arises was considered by the Land and Environment Court (NSW) [7] in a rare prosecution by the EPA for failure to notify a pollution incident.  The court considered that the duty to notify arose only when the defendant became aware that the clean-up operation would cost more than $10,000 with reference to the definition of material harm in the Protection of Environment Operations Act 1997 (NSW).  The defendant was found not guilty of the charge of failure to notify.  The court held that the respondent’s awareness of the bare fact that the pollution incident occurred did not trigger the duty to notify.

What are the next steps?

If you are concerned about a pollution incident, the discovery of contamination or legacy contamination it is prudent to obtain legal advice about your current and future reporting obligations and responsibilities.

Provision of false information is an offence under s 463 of the new Act, including concealing any materially relevant information or document.  This is an indictable offence which may also be heard and determined summarily.  The penalty is up to $80,595 for a natural person or up to $402,975 for a body corporate.[8]

[1] Section 37 Environment Protection Act 2017 (new Act)

[2] Section 38

[3] Section 40(3)

[4] Section 42

[5] Section 298 Corporations Act 2001 (Cth)

[6] Contravention of section 298 occurs when a director of the company, registered scheme or disclosing entity fails to take all reasonable steps to comply, or to secure compliance.  This is contravention of a civil penalty provision.

[7] Environment Protection Authority v Bulga Coal Management Pty Ltd (2014) 200 LGERA 235; [2014] NSWLEC 5.

[8] Calculated on the basis of the current penalty unit which may increase by the time the new Act commences.

© Eliza M Bergin 2019

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20 changes to the EPA you need to know about

In 1971, the Victorian EPA was established under the Environment Protection Act 1970 (Vic) (EP Act).  It was the second EPA to be established in the world.  On 2 December 1970, the first EPA was established in the USA.

Now 47 years after the inception of the EPA, the Environment Protection Act (Amendment) Act 2018 (Vic) was passed by the upper house on 9 August 2018 and lower house on 23 August 2018.  This Act follows the report of the Independent Inquiry into the EPA in March 2016 and the State Government’s response to that report in January 2017.  There are a large number of changes to the EPA and its powers that you and your clients need to know about if you practice in the area:

  1. Risk-based regulation: The Act represents a highly significant shift to a ‘risk based’ approach to regulation rather than simply managing the impacts of pollution on segments of the environment through the grant of works approvals and conditions on licences.
  2. Public health: While the purposes of the Act are almost identical to the purposes of the EP Act, there is a shift towards human health.  For example, the new principle of conservation requires biological diversity and ecological integrity to be protected for purposes that include the protection of human health.
  3. Governing body: The first phase of reform has already been implemented by passage of the new Environment Protection Act 2017 . Since 1 July 2018, the EPA has a new Governing Board.  The statutory role of Chief Environmental Scientist was also created.
  4. Mandatory reporting: The Act creates a new duty to notify pollution incidents as soon as reasonably practicable and a duty to take action to respond to harm caused by a pollution incident and to notify certain contamination.
  5. Corporate veil: The Act provides power for the EPA to direct a notice to a related or ‘associated’ entity over which the body corporate had control if the entity is being wound up or it has failed to comply with a notice from the EPA.  Exercise of that power is subject to a test that requires knowledge, a position of influence and a failure to exercise due diligence by the associated entity.
  6. Clean up powers: The EPA may take action in response to immediate or serious risk of harm to human health or the environment including conducting a clean up.  The EPA may make a claim on a financial assurance to cover the costs of the clean up.
  7. Cost recovery powers: The EPA may recover its reasonable costs in relation to issuing notices including improvement notices, prohibition notices, environmental action notices or site management orders.  The costs are recoverable against a person who the EPA reasonably believes caused the circumstances.  Reasonable  costs include legal costs.  Unrecovered costs may become a charge on the land and the EPA may lodge a notice of that charge with the titles office which is required to be noted in the Register.
  8. Third party rights: Third parties whose interests are affected by a contravention or non-compliance or who have been granted leave of a court may take action if the EPA has not taken enforcement or compliance action.  A court may make an order restraining a person from engaging in specified conduct or requiring specific action to be undertaken if the court considers appropriate.  Interim orders may also be made.
  9. Compensation for third parties: A court may make a compensation order requiring a person to pay compensation for injury, loss or damage and costs incurred by the interested third party.
  10. General environmental duty: A breach of the general environmental duty may incur a penalty up to 10,000 penalty units (currently $1,611,900) for a body corporate or 2000 penalty units (currently $322,380) for a natural person.  The general environmental duty requires a person engaging in an activity that may give rise to risks of harm to human health or the environment from pollution or waste to minimize those risks so far as reasonably practicable.  A breach of the general environmental duty in the course of conducting a business or undertaking is an indictable offence.  Multiple or aggravated breaches of this duty attract higher penalties – currently up to $3,223,800 for a body corporate.
  11. Development licence: Works approvals are replaced with ‘development licences’ for ‘development activities’.  A requirement to hold a development licence is triggered for construction or installation of plant or equipment or development of processes or systems for a prescribed development activity.  Certain modifications to plant, equipment, processes or systems which may create a risk of material harm to human health or the environment from pollution or waste may also trigger a requirement to hold a development licence.  This reform is coupled with a new definition of environment.
  12. Definition of environment: The old concept of ‘segments of the environment’ is replaced with a very broad definition that includes climate, water, land, atmosphere, sound, odour, taste, plants and animals and social aesthetics.
  13. Operating Licences, Permits and Registrations: The Act requires an operating licence for a prescribed operating activity and a permit for a prescribed permit activity.  A new concept of a pilot project licence is also introduced.  A registration activity triggers a requirement for authorization.  Refusal triggers a right of appeal to VCAT.
  14. Licence reviews: Operating licences must be reviewed after 4 years.  Conditions of the licence may then be varied by EPA or the licence revoked.
  15. SEPPs: SEPPs are replaced with environment reference standards which identify environmental values.
  16. Waste: The regulation of waste emissions requires detailed review by operators and industry because it represents a transformative change to waste regulation in Victoria.
  17. Audits: A new tool called a preliminary risk screen is introduced to define the scope of environmental audits.  Environmental auditors have new duties to notify the EPA in relation to imminent danger or an imminent state of danger to human health or the environment .
  18. Planning permits: The Act requires a development licence applicant to provide a copy of a planning permit or the planning scheme amendment to the EPA as part of the development licence application.  In that sense, planning permits are intended to precede the grant of EPA licences.
  19. Public Register: A new Public Register is created.  This is intended to contain details of enforceable undertakings, licences, permits or registrations that have been issued by EPA and conditions that attach in addition to the term.  The register is to be made available for inspection by the public.  Exemptions for persons or classes or persons may be applied for.
  20. VCAT Review: Rights of review to VCAT lie from decisions by the EPA to issue a notice such as an improvement notice; a prohibition notice; a notice to investigate; an environmental action notice or an abatement notice.  Further, a large list of decisions by the EPA under the Act are reviewable to VCAT including on applications for permits or authorisations, requirements to provide environmental assurances.  An application for review of a reviewable decision must be made within 15 days.  Limited grounds of review apply to certain decisions.

The reforms are proposed to have full effect by 1 December 2020, with staggered commencement dates to be proclaimed.

(c) Eliza M Bergin 2018

Changes to the operation of the VCAT Planning & Environment List are imminent!

What is the issue?

At the end of 2014, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal  announced changes proposed to be implemented to its Planning and Environment List from
2 February 2015 which will affect the way this List operates for all applicants, respondents and responsible authorities.

What does it mean for me?

All clients with exposure to the jurisdiction of VCAT, including as proponents, objectors, referral authorities and responsible authorities will be impacted by these changes which we consider will streamline this List to follow a similar mode of operation to the Major Cases List, a subset of the Planning and Environment List.

VCAT advised of the following four key changes in a recent media release.

  1. Initiating orders will be sent out for all matters in the Planning and Environment List.  These orders will specify hearing dates and any compulsory conference or mediation dates.  This changes from the current position where parties are not advised of a hearing date until later in the process.
  2. Alternative dispute resolution using the expert services of the mediators at VCAT will be further encouraged by notification of the date for attendance at a compulsory conference or mediation at the outset of proceedings.  The current position relies on solicitors advising their clients of the method and process of mediation at VCAT in order to attempt to resolve the dispute by mutually acceptable terms for all parties.
  3. Email is proposed to be the ‘preferred method’ of communication with parties and their advisors, rather than posting orders and hearing dates out in hard copy by ordinary post.
  4. New application forms will facilitate the early provision of required documentation and additional details. This includes a copy of the planning permit application, plans and supporting material lodged by the applicant for permit,  detail regarding objectors and whether a cultural heritage management plan has been prepared.

These changes are reflective of the new Major Cases List process, whereby applicants are provided with standard initiating directions setting out all relevant hearing dates together with a timetable for other procedural steps.  In our experience, this new method significantly expedites the hearing and determination of a matters, and if possible the early resolution of a dispute without jeopardising the allocated hearing date.

These changes will predominantly affect applications for review of the decision to grant (or not to grant) a permit, failure to decide appeals and applications for review of conditions of permit.  Enforcement matters will instead be referred to an initial practice day hearing.

What are the next steps?

Until 2 February 2015, VCAT advise that the old methods and procedures will be applied to applications for review.  At that time, finer details regarding the new procedures will be clarified.  Parties should seek legal advice regarding the impact of the announcement on any future matters proposed to be filed in VCAT.

This was first posted on the VGSO Blog.