Summary

In Environment Protection Authority v Greater Taree City Council [2014] NSWLEC 88, Greater Taree City Council (the Council) was convicted for polluting a waterway . The offence related to the spill of leachate from a pipe at the Council’s landfill facility.

The Council pleaded guilty to an offence against section 120(1) of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 for polluting waters. The New South Wales Land and Environment Court made the following orders:

  • In lieu of a fine, the Council pay $37,5000 towards the project “Taree Urban Waterways Riparian Regeneration Project”, noting the Council volunteered to increase the contribution to $50,000;
  • A notice publishing the offence in the local newspaper; and
  • The Council pay the prosecutor’s costs, investigation costs and expenses valuing $57,492.

Facts

The Council owns a solid waste landfill located south of Taree. The Council holds an Environment Protection Licence (EPL)  for the operations of the landfill facility which allows for waste disposal on land for general solid waste. The landfill is operated by JR & EG Richards under a Waste Service Contract with the Council, however the Council is contractually responsible for the management of the leachate pipe system. The waste facility includes three leachate ponds which generate leachate (the decomposition of land-filled waste). When the leachate in the ponds reaches a certain level, a float pump causes  the leachate to be discharged from the ponds via an underground pipe through to the sewage main.

In 2007 the leachate pipe became blocked with sludge. Council workers dug access to the pipe, cut it to remove the sludge, and then joined the pipe together using a temporary clamp. On 6 April 2012 the temporary clamp failed allowing the pumped leachate to escape. The leachate then ran downhill to the nearby watercourse and into Dennes Creek.

Considerations in sentencing

The Court considered the following factors significant in sentencing:

  • the Council accepted full responsibility for the breach and pleaded guilty;
  • the breach involved a serious yet inadvertent mistake, by failing to repair the pipe in 2007, failing to test the pipe regularly and inadequately monitoring the pumping-out of leachate from the waste facility;
  • the EPL recognised that leachate may be discharged without resulting in an offence;
  • the leachate contained green and domestic waste, with no harmful chemicals;
  • the concentrations of ammonia in the watercourse had returned to normal levels;
  • there were no aggravating factors;
  • the Council was able to rely on an exemplary record of no convictions over 40 years of operating the facility;
  • the limited degree of environmental harm;
  • the Council responded promptly and with considerable expense to the incident; and
  • the Council demonstrated contrition and remorse.

The Court particularly considered favourable the Council’s response to the incident, including:

  • clean-up action;
  • co-operation with the authorities;
  • measures taken to re-route the leachate line;
  • training organised; and
  • the introduction of a Pollution Incident Response Management Plan required for EPLs under theProtection of the Environment Operations Act 1997.

The Court also considered favourable the Council’s measures to minimise the likelihood and degree of harm from future similar incidents including:

  • increasing water sampling from three monthly to  monthly;
  • engaging an independent plumber to check the line every seven days;
  •  increasing the inspection regime from monthly to weekly;
  • continued quarterly servicing of leachate pumps;
  • slashing vegetation to enable better identification of the pipeline route;
  • completely removing all moving parts and joins in the leachate pipeline;
  • designing and preparing to install a second leachate line that avoids any watercourse;
  • installing gates in the pipes so water flow can be stopped quickly;
  • reviewing all procedural aspects of compliance with EPL requirements;
  • undertaking probiotic treatment of the leachate ponds over a 12 month period ;
  • installation of leachate interceptor drains at the point of construction of the tipping cell;
  • installation of a data logger and flow meter to the leachate pump which provides weekly readings;
  • engaging Midcoast Water to undertake complete replacement of the leachate line at the landfill.

Sheahan J stated that “a good citizen must accept responsibility for the consequences of inadequate repairs carried out on its behalf at an earlier time”. Additionally, the Court found that the Council had a degree of control over the cause of the pollution due to the EPL in place and the Council’s control in managing the pipeline according to the operating contract with JR & EG Richards. The Council’s response to the incident indicates that there were practical measures that could have prevented the risk of pollution from the pipeline which the Council did not undertake.

Lessons learnt

Operators of waste facilities need to ensure proper maintenance of facilities and take precautionary measures to ensure pollution does not occur. This is because the legislation does not only aim to prevent deliberate or negligent pollution, but also expects operators to take proper precautions to prevent pollution occurring. However, it also demonstrates the importance of a timely and effective response,  and co-operation with  authorities.