Regulating to prevent harm

Best practice regulation

Operational regulatory work is our core business. Through best-practice regulation, we improve the behaviour of individuals and businesses and hold poor environmental performers to account.

In 2019–20 EPA operational teams regulated and managed a wide range of licences and approvals, including:

  • 2,750 environment protection licences (for licensed premises)
  • 7,300 dangerous goods (driver) licences
  • 19,500 radiation licences
  • 1,240 tanker approvals
  • 6,875 pest-control licences
  • 202 orders and approvals that regulate the management of significantly contaminated land.

Our regulatory activities ensured continued high rates of compliance this year. For example, of licensed premises with environment protection licences, 99.2% complied with all their conditions.

Improving environmental performance with risk-based licensing

The EPA operates a risk-based licensing system for licences held under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997. This means licensed premises receive a level of regulatory oversight proportional to the level of risk their operations pose to the environment. In addition, the EPA imposes higher licence fees for poor environmental performance and lower ones for better performance. This gives businesses an economic incentive to maintain and/or improve their environmental performance.

Currently only 3% of the 2,086 premises licensed by the EPA are in the high-risk category. The EPA aims to inspect these premises at least twice a year to ensure they are managing their activities in accordance with the conditions of their environment protection licences (and so minimising their environmental impacts). Those with a lower rating are inspected on a regular schedule at intervals determined by their risk level.

98% of high-risk/proactive inspections were undertaken for compliance with environmental standards. This was an increase of 42% since 2016–17.

Licence reviews

Environment protection licences issued under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 must be reviewed every five years in accordance with section 78 of the Act. Reviews ensure that licence requirements are updated to reflect changes over time, for example in technology or surrounding environmental conditions. We provide notification to licensees, and list licences that are due for review on our website so that the public can contribute to these reviews.

In 2020–21, a total of 639 licences were due for review. Of these, the EPA completed 39 reviews, with six reviews by the due date. With over 94% of reviews completed on time, this upholds our commitment to ensuring that licences are reviewed in accordance with the Act. The table shows details of licence reviews over a five-year period.

No. of licence reviews Licence reviews completed by due date Licence reviews not completed by due date

2016–⁠17

233

232

1

2017–⁠18

274

271

3

2018–⁠19

597

592

5

2019–⁠20

743

724

19

2020–⁠21

639

606

33

Planning

The EPA seeks to improve the environment and human health and eliminate or reduce land-use conflict, increasing regulatory certainty for industry and improving the quality of life for residents.

The strategic planning and development assessment process under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act) plays a central role in avoiding and/or managing environmental impacts.

Preventing harm through the NSW planning and development system

Through engagement in strategic planning exercises, the EPA seeks to ensure that land-use planning takes account of environmental issues such as air and water quality, noise, waste and contaminated land.

As part of the development assessment process, we provide expert advice on how development may affect air or water quality, noise management, waste, contaminated land, and chemical and radiation issues. Through our advice and recommendations, we can influence proponents and consent authorities.

In 2020–21, the EPA dealt with 577 planning matters – 131 of these were Integrated Development Applications where local government must adopt the EPA’s General Terms of Approval.

100% of DAs for significant development contain conditions recommended or agreed to by the EPA in 2020–21.

Laying the groundwork for better planning

In 2020–21 the EPA developed a staff planning matters training program with Macquarie University funded by the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. The training will be rolled out in 2021–22. The training will support the EPA to meet NSW Government priorities on the timeliness and quality of planning matters processes, and to support the EPA to obtain better outcomes for the environment and human health within the NSW planning and development framework.

Land and resources

The EPA protects land in NSW by regulating activities that have the potential to contaminate our soil and water tables. It also oversees remediation of sites that are already contaminated.

Contaminated sites

The EPA regulates the management of significantly contaminated land to:

  • protect people and the environment
  • make better living environments by allowing the land to be put to good use – for instance, as public open space.

 

4% of regulated contaminated sites were remediated in 2020–21.

 

We work with communities, local councils, industry and other responsible authorities to raise awareness of contaminated land and its management. We also listen to our stakeholders, which builds their confidence in the work we do. Where necessary, we exercise our regulatory powers to ensure industry and other responsible parties appropriately manage contaminated land.

hazard warning tape around a black plastic covered pile of asbestos

Illegal dumping of asbestos near a river. Photo EPA

In 2020–21:

  • the EPA received and prioritised 49 new notifications of contaminated land for potential regulation, mostly from landowners
  • 21 of the 30 notifications that had enough information were assessed within four months, a completion rate of 70%
  • 12 new sites were declared significantly contaminated, requiring management under the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997
  • EPA regulation ended for 6 sites declared significantly contaminated, because the contamination had been cleaned up or managed
  • for land declared to be significantly contaminated, 72% complied with management order conditions and 79% complied with the terms and conditions of approved voluntary management proposals.

Of our target to notify 95% of assessed contaminated sites within four months on a decision on whether regulation is required, we achieved 91%.

   

CASE STUDY

Community soil sampling in Captains Flat

two officers in the field at Captains Flat

EPA staff sampling soil at Captains Flat Public School. Photo: EPA

Captains Flat is a town of about 600 people, 45 km south of Queanbeyan, NSW. From the 1880s to the 1960s it was home to an underground mine that produced metals, including lead, and an associated smelter. The mine site is heavily contaminated with lead and other substances and has been derelict since it closed.

In late 2020 the EPA learned that the rail corridor next to the mine was contaminated with lead. This sparked concern that contamination might have spread to the town.

In January 2021 the NSW Government brought together staff from several government agencies, including the EPA, to form the Captains Flat Contamination Taskforce. This group’s role was to investigate the contamination and engage closely with the Captains Flat community.

EPA officers measured lead levels in surface soil at 80 public areas including parks, reserves, roads and schools. They then compared them with the ‘health investigation level’ set by national guidelines: if these levels are exceeded, further investigation is warranted.

Fourteen of the 80 tested sites had lead levels higher than the health investigation level. In the northern part of the village, levels were generally low, but in the southern part – closer to the former mine – some sites had higher readings. However, lead levels above the health investigation level don’t necessarily pose a risk to human health.

The EPA presented this information to residents at two well-attended community drop-in sessions in town. We also distributed:

  • a report with the test results
  • a fact sheet that explained how to manage lead contamination around the home. We distributed this via letterbox drops and posted it on the EPA website.

The EPA offered to test surface soil and water tanks on residents’ properties for free. Forty people responded. About half the properties tested had lead contamination in the surface soil above the health investigation level.

The EPA and other members of the taskforce are continuing to work with the Captains Flat community to keep people safe from contaminants from the former mine. The taskforce is developing an area-wide management plan for the town that will include:

  • further testing on the former mine site and in the town
  • remediation of soil and groundwater
  • engagement with the community.

 

view of the tree-lined Parramatta River with a family on the shore

Parramatta River swimming area. Photo: EPA

Protecting water

The EPA aims to protect water bodies and aquatic ecosystems from harmful industrial and sewage discharges, and from substances such as oil, chemicals, pesticides, sediments and fertilisers carried in run-off from the land or stormwater systems.

The EPA uses licence conditions and powers under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 to regulate discharges to water from industry or sewage treatment plants, and collaborates with other agencies to improve water quality.

Some swimming sites along the NSW coast can be affected by stormwater and occasional sewage system overflows. The NSW Government’s Beachwatch program monitors water quality at these sites. The most recent available data (for 2019–20) shows that water quality was ‘very good’ or ‘good’ at 89% of the 228 monitored sites. This is a slight increase on the previous year and exceeds the EPA’s target of 83%. The 126 monitored ocean beaches had excellent water quality, with 98% being ‘good’ or ‘very good’.

Steps to a healthy Parramatta River

The EPA is working with member agencies of the Parramatta River Catchment Group and the community to make Parramatta River ‘swimmable’ by 2025. This project will benefit the surrounding community by creating more accessible swimming locations and improving the river’s ecosystem health. New swimming spots will be opened by 2025, joining current sites at Cabarita Park beach, Chiswick Baths, Dawn Fraser Baths and Lake Parramatta. We are helping to deliver several components of the Parramatta River Masterplan by:

  • ensuring activities to reduce sewage overflows target the right catchments
  • continuing to participate in the successful Get the Site Right compliance and education campaign in the catchment. This campaign targets erosion and sediment control on building and construction sites
  • taking part in intergovernmental workshops
  • protecting the community by looking at potential health risks at the proposed swimming sites.

The EPA will continue to be actively involved in delivering the Parramatta River Masterplan.

CASE STUDY

Responding to odour at Minchinbury

EPA officer wearing hi viz in the field at Minchinbury

EPA Officer undertaking odour surveys in the Minchinbury and Eastern Creek area. Photo: EPA

In March 2021 residents in and around Minchinbury in Sydney’s western suburbs began reporting an unpleasant odour, likened to rotten eggs. The EPA received over 800 reports. We responded by stepping up the number of odour surveys and inspections of potential source sites and engaging external qualified odour surveyors to support our efforts.

Our investigations confirmed the odour was coming largely from Bingo’s Dial-A-Dump landfill in Eastern Creek.

In April 2021 we issued Bingo with a Clean-Up Notice that directed it to take immediate steps to reduce odours, and in May 2021 we amended Bingo’s environment protection licence to limit the volume and type of waste accepted at the landfill. Bingo has now installed a system for collecting and flaring landfill gas and has improved how it covers waste. These steps have greatly reduced the odour.

We kept the local community informed about our progress through social media, email, a pop-up community information stall, and by speaking at community meetings and issuing a media statement. We installed temporary air monitoring devices at several locations and published their data on our website.

We will continue to investigate potential offences by Bingo and/or Dial-A-Dump in relation to this odour event and are committed to working towards a long-term solution for this problem.

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