The Environment Protection Act 2017 (Amending Act) received royal assent on 24 October 2017. This is the first phase of the Environment Protection Authority of Victoria’s (EPA) proposed reforms to the Environment Protection Act 1970. The Amending Act is due to come into effect 1 July 2018, if not proclaimed earlier.

The EPA’s governance structure and purpose

The Amending Act seeks to strengthen EPA’s governance framework through the establishment of a governing board and new stated objective ‘to protect human health and the environment by reducing the harmful effects of pollution and waste’.

The governing board is to consist of between five and nine members, with a statutory term not exceeding five years. Members are eligible for re-appointment for one further term. The governing board has power to appoint advisory committees to assist it to perform its functions, and is required to appoint a Chief Environmental Scientist.

Section 6 of the Amending Act provides:

The objective of the Authority is to protect human health and the environment by reducing the harmful effects of pollution and waste.

The emphasis is on mitigating, rather than preventing, the effects of pollution. This objective could be interpreted as being inconsistent with a strategy focused on prevention. The Authority must exercise its duties and functions for the purposes of achieving the stated objective ‘to the extent that it is practicable to do so’. There may be debate as to whether this revised statutory objective is sufficient to deal with particular challenges.

The Governing Board is empowered to delegate to protection agencies all or any of the Authority’s powers and functions under the Act. This power will likely be used to facilitate local government authorised officers taking a greater role in enforcement of local amenity issues, as foreshadowed through the EPA Inquiry.

Works approvals

The Amending Act also establishes a new requirement for the referral of ‘significant works approval applications’ to the Secretary to the Department of Health and Human Services.

These fundamental changes pave the way for the broader suite of reforms, due to be introduced into Parliament in 2018, aimed at creating a more effective regulatory regime.

Meanwhile EPA’s organisational transformation is underway, with the release of its five year strategy (link) and the appointment of Victoria’s inaugural Chief Environmental Scientist, Dr Andrew Hinwood.