Serious deficiencies have been found in the Department of Environment’s monitoring of major projects, according to a report from the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO).
The ANAO audited the department’s compliance with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, finding there was “limited awareness” of the progress of many developments.
“The increasing workload on compliance monitoring staff over time has resulted in [the department] adopting a generally passive approach to monitoring proponents’ compliance with most approval conditions,” the audit said.
“As a consequence, the department has limited awareness of the progress of many approved controlled actions and the elevated risks to matters of national environmental significance during various stages of an action (for example, during ground clearance and construction).”
One of the projects approved with conditions under the EPBC Act, is the proposed dredging of 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoils near the Great Barrier Reef.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt said in December he had imposed strict environmental conditions on the project.
“For Abbot Point, perhaps the most important condition is that any dredging would be limited to 1.3 million cubic metres of sediment a year – that is down from a 38-million-cubic-metre proposal under the previous government,” he said at the time.
“We’ve also made conditions that dredging and any relocation can only be undertaken in a small window of opportunity which the environmental scientists consider to be the best from the 1st of March to the 30th of June.”
ANAO found many cases where departmental staff had failed to even notice conditions had been breached on existing projects.
“In many cases, instances of proponent non-compliance (mostly of a technical nature – such as a missed deadline to submit a management plan) were not identified by staff or were identified but not referred for assessment and possible enforcement action,” the audit said.
The report found the failure to appropriately respond to identified non-compliance can impact on the effectiveness of environmental safeguards, risk environmental damage, jeopardise the department’s ability to take future enforcement action and harm the public’s confidence in the regulator.
“The extent of the shortcomings in, and challenges facing, [the department’s] regulation of approved controlled actions … does not instil confidence that the environmental protection measures … have received sufficient oversight over an extended period of time,” the report said.
Department acknowledges ‘shortcomings’ in actions
The Federal Government has secured agreements with all states and territories to hand them responsibility for environmental approvals.
Under the changes, the states will take on Commonwealth environmental assessment powers and consider applications under state and federal legislation.
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) said the audit showed the Federal Government was in no position to handover powers.
“The Federal Government is in the process of handing over environmental approval powers to states without having adequate compliance and monitoring systems and without getting its own house in order,” ACF campaigner Ruchira Talukdar said.
“Sadly, the Federal Government is failing to enforce the law when it comes to protecting the air we breathe and the water we drink.”
In its response to the ANAO audit, the Department of Environment said it “acknowledged the shortcomings in its regulation of approved controlled actions”.
“[The department has] initiated a broad program of work to address the shortcomings identified over recent years, including those identified from earlier reviews and this audit,” the department said.
“The department informed the ANAO that it is … establishing a Regulatory Capability Development Program, developing and updating standard operating procedures and developing a risk-based prioritisation model to assist with the targeting of its compliance monitoring activities.”
The Environment Department has been contacted for comment.
By environment and science reporter Jake Sturmer