Sixty per cent of Victoria’s major coal, oil, gas and mining companies have breached Environmental Protection Authority licence conditions—raising questions about the efficacy of Victoria’s environmental regulation.
Roughly two and a half years after Victoria’s EPA announced a regulatory overhaul, a survey of 2011-2012 financial year data reveals over 50 per cent of power stations and mining companies, and 75 per cent of coal, oil and gas plants, breached environmental conditions over the last year.
Data compiled by NM from the Annual Performance Statements of 21 companies across 25 locations — including Mecrus, Shell, Mobil Refining, Holcim and Hazelwood — show many of the state’s biggest power, coal, oil, gas and mining organisations to be the worst environmental offenders.
The most common breaches involved the discharge of waste to water, followed by the discharge of waste to air and delays in notifying the EPA of licence breaches.
Currently, under 400 companies are licensed by the EPA and need to report annually using Annual Performance Statements, listing performance against: administrative and intra-industry requirements; amenity issues; landfills; waste management; and treatment and waste disposal. Statements must explain any non-compliance.
The EPA is introducing a “risk-based” model, due to be completed by early 2014, with a greater focus on transparency, and an overhaul of its licensing and approvals systems.
According to the most recent figures from the EPA's third quarter compliance report, 29 warnings have been issued for “low-risk” non-compliances, 26 infringement notices with fines of up to $7000 for low to moderate risk non-compliances and three contravention notices for major licence infringements. These include potential licence suspensions, statutory injunctions or site surveillance.
The EPA prosecuted six companies — Mobil Refining, Drum Brokers Australia, FCL Interstate Transport, Golden Circle, Lantrak Projects and Schutz DSL — over the past year with fines of up to $150,000.
During the 2011-2012 financial year, pollution abatement notices rose by 40 per cent, clean up notices, by 33 per cent, pollution reports by 14 per cent and pollution infringement notices by 3 per cent. However, warnings went down by 59 per cent and prosecutions by 50 per cent.
But EPA former Deputy Chair Robert Joy told NM many of the breaches were of little environmental significance and that data could not be taken at face value.
“What you really need to look at is the nature of the breach and, in particular, is the breach indicative of a systematic problem with the particular licence faculty?” Joy said.
Mecrus’s coal processing plant at Morwell was the worst environmental performer, breaching half of its 14 licence conditions, many relating to air and land pollution. Spokespersons for the plant and its landlord, coal-technology company HRL, refused repeated requests for comment.
Shell’s Corio and Mobil’s Altona plants were the worst performing oil and gas refineries, breaching just under half their licence conditions concerning amenity, administration, and the discharge of waste to land and water.
Shell would not answer questions about specific breaches, but told NM its operating sites had systems to identify and prevent contamination.
“All of Shell’s operating sites in Australia are fitted with stock loss systems to help detect loss of product and prevent contamination before it occurs,” the spokesperson said.
Mobil declined to comment on specific licence breaches, but told New Matilda it had invested to improve its Altona refinery’s efficacy.
“Since 2008 we have been investing significantly in improving the refinery’s efficiency, safety and reliability, which in turn helps to improve our environmental impacts,” said the spokesperson.
Over the last financial year, the refinery received 30 complaints around odour, noise, pollution and operational disruptions. Mobil said it was working with the EPA and local councils to improve the management of residential development near the site.
But Joy said there was a limit to what regulation could achieve with refineries such as Mobil.
“Mobil has a very long history of poor environmental performance with the EPA and there’s a limit to what regulation can do,” said Joy.
Holcim’s Tynong and Pakenham plants were the worst performers in Victoria’s extractive and mining sector. The Tynong plant breached 39 per cent of its licence conditions while the Pakenham plant breached 33 per cent. The contraventions related to discharges of stormwater and waste.
Holcim blamed unexpected weather for the infringements and said its plants had “very strict” water management measures.
“Although we have very strict water management measures in place and very deliberate processes that ensures any water leaving the site is controlled; unfortunately, nature can sometimes override,” a spokesperson told NM.
But company statements reveal only one discharge at its Pakenham plant was the result of above average rainfall.
Hazelwood’s Morwell plant was Victoria’s worst performing power station, breaching 32 per cent of its licence conditions.
A Hazelwood spokesperson said the non-compliances were insignificant and reflected administrative issues.
Joy said power station regulation should focus on carbon dioxide emissions, rather than such breaches.
But the removal of the state’s 20 per cent emissions target from the Climate Change Act last year, due to the introduction of the carbon tax, stripped the EPA of power to recommend policies to regulate greenhouse emissions.
The Hazelwood refinery’s licence reveals requirements for year round monitoring of air emissions. But the plant is allowed to exceed carbon dioxide limits for 100 days per year.
Environment Victoria told NM companies must comply with all conditions.
“That is part of their licence and they can’t pick and chose which conditions of operation they want to meet,” said Campaigns Director Mark Wakeham.
Monash University environmental engineering and mining expert Dr Gavin Mudd told NM that if industries were as well regulated as they argued, there was no reason why they could not comply with all conditions.
“If the industry’s got those conditions and they’re saying they’re well regulated and so on, then why can’t they actually meet those conditions?” he asked.
The EPA declined repeated requests for an interview and said its risk-based system was consistent with best global practice, which translated to responding to issues representing the most risks to communities and the environment.
This is the first of a two-part series by Georgina Moore on environmental breaches in Victoria. This story was originally written as an assignment in the School of Journalism at Monash University.
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