On 20 May 2015, the Victorian Government announced that a major public inquiry will be conducted into the Environment Protection Authority (EPA). The Inquiry will examine the powers and resourcing of the EPA, to ensure that it “keeps up with the times and has the powers and resources it needs to do its job.”

The Inquiry was a pre-election commitment made by the Victorian Labor Party (now in government), and follows a number of recent high profile environmental and public health incidents in Victoria, including the fire at the Hazelwood coal mine, contamination issues at the former CFA Fiskville training ground, and asbestos contamination issues for residential properties in North Sunshine.

A three person ministerial advisory committee (MAC) has been established to conduct the Inquiry, comprising Ms Penny Armytage (Chair), Ms Jane Brockington and Ms Janice van Reyk.

In conducting the Inquiry, the MAC will seek the views of the community, industry and workers in related industries, local government and Victorian government agencies, as well as those of other relevant stakeholders.

The MAC will operate from 1 June and provide a written report to the Minister by 31 March 2016. The Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water will publicly release the report and a response to its findings and recommendations on behalf of the Victorian Government in mid-2016.

The terms of reference for the Inquiry are summarised below (in order of priority):

  1. the EPA’s appropriate role in relation to public health issues, including at least:
    • community concerns such as exposure to asbestos, chemicals and other pollutants;
    • the prevention and management of site contamination, air quality, and water quality in rivers and other waterways;
  2. the community’s and industry’s expectations of the EPA;
  3. the EPA’s appropriate role in protecting the environment;
  4. the ability of EPA to ensure the principle of environmental justice is adhered to and members of the community can be meaningfully involved in and access fair treatment through environmental regulation;
  5. the ability of the EPA’s current governance structures and funding arrangements to enable it to effectively and efficiently discharge its powers, perform its duties and implement its required functions;
  6. the scope and adequacy of the EPA’s statutory powers, and the effectiveness and efficiency of the suite of tools available to and utilised by the EPA, particularly in light of recent, new and emerging risks and issues.

The Inquiry is of significant interest to local government in clearly defining the respective roles and responsibilities of the EPA and councils with respect to environmental issues, and ensuring that funding is appropriately allocated.

Industry is to play a key role in the Inquiry, particularly from the perspective of identifying initiatives to improve regulatory efficiency and minimise regulatory burden, and being involved in the future shape of environmental legislation in Victoria.

This Inquiry follows a number of earlier inquiries by the Victorian Ombudsman, Victorian Auditor General’s Office and the EPA itself into the EPA’s powers and responsibilities, in particular in relation the management of contamination and former landfills. A number of recommendations for reforms in this area were also made by the former Government, including to State environment protection policies and the legal and policy framework for managing site contamination outlined in Cleaner Environments -- Smarter Urban Renewal released in September 2014. Victoria’s Environment Protection Act 1970 is over 40 years old, has been amended multiple times and has been recognized as requiring a comprehensive review for some time.

King & Wood Mallesons will be closely monitoring the progress of the Inquiry, and will be seeking to identify opportunities for its clients to participate in industry and stakeholder consultation sessions, and to have input in relation to any specific proposals for reform.