Supporting recovery from the 2021 floods

Heavy rain started falling on Australia’s east coast on 18 March 2021, causing flooding up and down NSW. On 21 March the floods were declared a natural disaster. We immediately activated our Incident Management Team, deploying officers to the:

  • State Emergency Operations Centre in Homebush
  • SES (State Emergency Service) State Command Centre in Wollongong
  • regional Emergency Operations Centres across NSW.

The EPA’s action was part of a coordinated response from the NSW Government. We worked alongside:

SES logo       Resilence NSW logo
Fire and Rescue logo   Public works advisory logo
Rural Fire Service logo   office of local government logo

Our role was to provide environmental advice and services. We did this in a number of ways.

Support for licensees

We contacted licensees within the flood zone to assess how they were affected and provided support where possible.

Support for flood-affected communities

We assigned staff to multi-agency teams that were deployed around the state to help with the relief effort.

Waste management

We contacted affected councils to discuss their options for disposing of waste or storing it temporarily. We also provided communities with guidance on how to clean up flood waste and what to do with asbestos.

Waste levy exemptions

We waived the waste levy in flood-affected areas to reduce communities’ clean-up costs.

Community presence

Our community recovery centre representatives attended meetings where we listened and responded to concerns raised by people directly impacted by the floods.

Safety and protection of the environment

We distributed information to local councils and stakeholders about safety and protection of the environment, covering topics such as:

  • dealing with asbestos
  • blackwater events (high levels of dissolved carbon)
  • fish kills
  • sewage.

Clean-up of shorelines and waterways

  • We led the collection and removal of flood debris on shorelines and waterways through the NSW Storm and Flood Shoreline Clean-up Program.
  • We guided volunteers in how to clean up debris while protecting vulnerable shoreline plants and ecosystems in these environments.
  • We appointed specialist maritime salvage companies (Varley and Avcon) to collect and remove debris.
  • We worked with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the NSWRFS State Air Desk to obtain flyovers of the impacted areas, which gave us real-time aerial views of riverbanks and shorelines along the entire NSW coast. We combined these views with on-ground intelligence from the public, community groups, councils and other agencies to map and identify waste and debris. High-risk debris, such as
    • hazardous waste
    • animal carcasses
    • debris posing a threat to safe navigation or aquaculture
    • debris posing an immediate environmental threat
  • Were prioritised for removal.
  • We also collaborated closely with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment to identify areas that were environmentally or culturally sensitive, so we could ensure our clean-up did not cause more harm than the debris itself.

The clean-up of shorelines and waterways after the floods extended from Sydney to the Queensland border and included all the major coastal river systems. It was the largest such clean-up ever undertaken in NSW.

Acting in line with our responsibilities and values

The EPA acted in line with its responsibilities under the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989, namely, to act safely and efficiently in “the process of returning an affected community to its proper level of functioning after an emergency” (SERM Act, Section 5(d)), with a focus on minimising impacts on the environment.

Our response showed the characteristics of a world class regulator:

  • we were service-oriented in supporting impacted communities
  • the tools and technology we used let us be responsive and adaptive
  • we showed a learning mindset in applying lessons learned from our 2019–20 bushfire response
  • we took the initiative on the shoreline clean-up, and were outcomes-focused.

Throughout our response we were committed to delivering value to the public by improving environmental and human health outcomes.

an EPA officer in hi viz with a damaged hay bale on river bank

Clean-up operations on the Manning River. Photo: EPA

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