What has happened?

On 4 April 2013 the Victorian Government released its final report of a review of how the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) assesses applications for, and makes decisions on, approvals under the Environment Protection Act 1970 (Vic). The review recommends changes to the assessment processes and shortened timeframes for low risk projects. It also proposes changes to the emergency discharge licences for extractive industry, mining and sewage treatment. The EPA expects all reforms to be fully implemented by early 2014 and is seeking industry involvement in the reform process.

Who needs to know?

This article is relevant to you if your business currently holds, or may be required to apply for:

  • an approval to commence, update or extend new works, or to pilot a new project which may have an impact on the environment, or
  • a licence or approval to manage or discharge wastes which may have an impact on the environment.

Details

The EPA’s current system of issuing work approvals and licences applies to any applications which are determined to have an environmental impact or which discharge or emit waste to the environment.

Key reforms that are proposed include:

  1. A new risk-based system which will allow the EPA to vary the level of assessment required for each proposal, proportionate to the level of risk involved.

The current system applies the same process for all applications, irrespective of the project’s complexity or impacts. The proposed new system includes separate application and assessment pathways for standard approvals, fast track approvals, and major high risk projects. The review also proposes that minor works with no adverse effect on the environment or third parties be exempt from the need for approval altogether.

However, even fast tracked applications would still be open to third party comment and review to VCAT.

  1. Shortened application timelines:
  1. The EPA has undertaken to determine the required assessment level within two weeks of receiving the approval application. However, it is not clear if the EPA would be able to achieve this timeframe if its decision making is influenced by other government agencies, especially for a potential major project.
  2. The standard works approval process will be significantly quicker, with applicants to receive advice of the EPA’s decision within three months of application.
  3. There is a new fast track pathway for low-risk proposals, with applicants to receive advice of the EPA’s decision within six weeks of application.
  4. Applicants for exemptions will receive advice of exemption within four weeks of application.
  1. Emergency discharge for extractive industry, mining and sewage treatment:

To reduce the number of emergency approval applications, licences relating to sewage treatment and extractive industry and mining are to be amended to allow for emergency discharges without approval in certain situations. These discharges must be reported in the licensee’s annual performance statement.

  1. Effectiveness in environmental protection:
  1. A proportion of approved work sites will be assessed for environmental performance one year after they begin operation.
  2. EPA will periodically review approval conditions and licence content.
  1. Agency coordination: businesses applying for both a works approval and planning permit will be able to have their applications processed simultaneously.
  2. Recognising excellence: businesses will have the opportunity to receive recognition of excellence in environmental performance across licensed sites.
  3. Transparency: the EPA propose to publish all applications, summary assessments, decisions on approvals and exemptions. The EPA also propose to develop a set of standard conditions to apply to certain types of applications.

What next?

The EPA has indicated that its top priority reform is to develop the criteria to be used in the risk-based assessment pathway. This may require some legislative amendment, in particular to accommodate the risk based assessment and fast tracking of applications. However, some of the reforms, such as the amendment of existing licences for extractive industry, mining and sewerage treatment, could be done immediately. Other reforms, such as publishing information on the website and developing standard conditions for certain types of applications, will also not require legislative change.

What could your business be doing?

For extractive industry, mining and sewerage treatment businesses, you should get in contact with your local EPA officer to discuss the emergency discharge reform, find out what is proposed, and the conditions to enable the discharge within the current licence framework. The EPA has established a team to work on the reforms and had advised that it is happy to involve stakeholders in further consultation. If your business is contemplating a development in the near future, you may wish to participate in the reform process. This will help you keep up to date with the legislative amendments so that you can understand whether your development is likely to be fast tracked, go through a standard application or be designated a major project.