Environmental legislation and compliance
New South Wales has a number of laws to help protect the environment and provide guidance to business.
The Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 (POEO Act) is the main piece of NSW environmental legislation covering water, land, air and noise pollution and waste management.
In some cases breaking environmental law carries serious penalties. If you break the law and end up in court, the prosecutor may not have to prove that you intended to cause the damage or pollution. Even accidents can result in prosecution and penalties.
Everyone involved in your business (including owners, managers, supervisors, operators, contractors and subcontractors) needs to be aware of environmental laws that apply to your operations. Individuals are required to minimise the risk of an environmental incident by implementing precautionary and control measures.
By gaining awareness of environmental laws, and how your business has the potential to affect the environment, you will be in a better position to manage risk in your business.
Managers and directors can be prosecuted for offences committed by their company, unless they can demonstrate that they exercised all due diligence to prevent the contravention of the POEO Act or that they could not influence the conduct of their company in relation to the contravention. They cannot use lack of knowledge about the contravention as a defence.
A comprehensive approach to addressing regulatory requirements includes:
- Developing a plan that incorporates environmental management
- Undertaking staff training and supervision
- Completing a self-assessment or independent audit
Under section 120 of the POEO Act it is illegal to pollute or cause or permit pollution of waters.
Under the Act, 'water pollution' includes introducing litter, sediment, oil, grease, wash water, debris, and flammable liquids such as paint, etc. into waters or placing such material where it is likely to be washed or blown into waters or the stormwater system or percolate into groundwater.
An individual guilty of water pollution under section 120 of the POEO Act may be fined up to $250,000, plus up to $60,000 per day for a continuing offence. A company committing the same offence may be fined up to $1,000,000, plus up to $120,000 per day for a continuing offence.
Alternatively, on-the-spot fines of $750 for individuals and $1500 for corporations may be issued for the same offence.
You should take all practicable steps to make sure that unforeseen events, such as spills or leaks, do not result in polluted water entering the stormwater system or groundwater. This means keeping chemicals in a properly maintain and operated bunded and covered storage area, having adequately stocked spill kits on hand and making sure staff know how to use them. Under no circumstances should you hose a chemical spill down the drain.
Air pollution means emitting any impurities into the air, including odours, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), smoke, dust, gases, fumes and solid particles of any kind.
Under the POEO Act (Sections 124-126), businesses must maintain and operate equipment and deal with materials in a proper and efficient manner to prevent air pollution at all times.
Under Section 129 of the POEO Act, businesses licensed by the EPA must not cause or permit the emission of any offensive odour from the premises.
Under section 142 of the POEO Act it is an offence to pollute land. Additionally, section 116 of the POEO Act makes it an offence to wilfully or negligently cause any substance to leak, spill or otherwise escape in a manner that harms or is likely to harm the environment.
When handling hazardous materials and waste keep in mind that it is an offence to cause any substance to leak, spill or otherwise escape in a manner that harms or is likely to harm the environment (POEO Act section 116).
Make sure you're aware of the legal requirements before using, storing, transporting and disposing of hazardous materials (e.g. dangerous goods and chemicals). The laws relating to chemical storage vary depending on the amount that you are storing. For more information contact WorkCover NSW.
The movement of most hazardous waste must be tracked during its transport to a facility for treatment, recycling or disposal. Waste may be tracked online. For more information contact the DECC Environment Line on 131 555.
The most effective way of dealing with hazardous materials is to:
- Avoid them by replacing them with less toxic materials
- Use work practices that minimise their use.
By law (POEO Act sections 139 and 140), you must not allow noise from your premises to be generated as a result of the failure to maintain or operate machinery or deal with materials in a proper and efficient manner.
Regulatory authorities may also issue notices and directions requiring you reduce or cease noise from your premises that could be found offensive. 'Offensive noise' means that by reason of its level, nature, character, quality or the time at which it is made, or any other circumstance, the noise is harmful or interferes unreasonably with the comfort of people who are outside your premises.
Under the POEO Act there are heavy penalties for unlawful disposal of waste. The owners of waste (as well as the transporters and receivers) have a responsibility to ensure their waste is managed, transported and disposed of appropriately.
The Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Act 2001 encourages the most efficient use of resources, to reduce environmental harm and to provide for an ongoing reduction in waste generation.
The following hierarchy for managing waste, from most desirable to least desirable, meets the objectives of the Act:
- Avoid unnecessary resource consumption
- Recover resources (including reusing, reprocessing and recycling) and recover energy
- As a last resort, dispose of the material safely and lawfully
The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) is an internet database that displays information about the annual emissions from industrial facilities and diffuse sources of 90 different chemical substances to air, land and water. Your facility may be required to report to the NPI if you trip any of the reporting thresholds such as using 10 tonnes or more of any of the NPI listed substances.
For more information visit the NPI website or phone the DECC Environment Line on 131 555.
Environmental laws are policed by the 'appropriate regulatory authority' - generally the EPA (part of the Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW) or the local Council.
The EPA regulates the activities listed in Schedule 1 of the POEO Act, usually large companies and industries that have the potential to seriously affect the environment. See "Do you need an Environment Protection Licence?" below.
Local Councils regulate other, usually smaller, businesses and industries through notices and prosecutions. They can also regulate using development consents.
The POEO Act gives the appropriate regulatory authority the power to enter and inspect premises and issue clean-up or prevention notices and on-the-spot fines. The regulatory authority can also prosecute a business where environmental laws have not been complied with.
If a pollution incident occurs during an activity and it causes or threatens 'material harm' to the environment, by law you must tell the appropriate regulatory authority, either the local Council or the EPA.
You must contact them as soon as you can after you become aware of the incident. This 'duty to notify pollution incidents' extends to employers, the person carrying on the activity, employees, occupiers, contractors and agents.
For more information call the DECC Environment Line on 131 555.
You must notify the EPA of any land contamination that poses a significant risk of harm to human health or the environment (Contaminated Land Management Act 1997). This 'duty to notify contamination' falls on the owner of the property and on the person whose activities have caused the contamination.
For more information call the DECC Environment Line on 131 555 or refer to Guidelines on the Significant Risk of Harm from Contaminated Land and the Duty to Report (1999).
The most serious offences (Tier 1 offences) are wilful breaches of the law that harm or are likely to harm the environment. These carry penalties of up to $5 million for a company or $1 million for an individual and/or seven years imprisonment.
Where breaches are negligent, the penalties for the most serious offences are up to $2 million for a company or $500,000 for an individual and/or four years imprisonment.
Most other offences (Tier 2 offences) carry penalties of up to $1 million (plus a daily penalty of up to $120,000 for continuing offences) for companies or $250,000 (plus a daily penalty of up to $60,000 for continuing offences) for individuals.
Less serious breaches can result in an 'on-the-spot' fine (penalty notice) with a penalty of $750 for individuals and $1500 for companies.
Penalty notices (Penalty Infringement Notices or PINs), operate very similarly to a speeding ticket and are administered by the State Debt Recovery Office, which is the fines division of the Office of State Revenue.
A Clean-up Notice may be issued by the EPA and Local Councils when a pollution incident has occurred or is occurring.
Clean-up notices may direct an occupier of a premises or the polluter to take clean-up action as specified in the notice.
An administration fee (currently $320) is payable to the EPA or local Councils for the issuing of a clean-up notice. There is no right of appeal against a clean-up notice.
Prevention notices can be issued if an activity has been or is being carried out in an environmentally unsatisfactory manner.
Prevention notices require that actions specified in the notice are carried out. Prevention notices can include directions, such as installing bunding around a chemical storage area to prevent spills.
An administration fee (currently $320) is payable to the EPA or local Council for the issuing of a prevention notice. There is a right of appeal against a prevention notice to the Land and Environment Court.
Noise Control Notices
Noise control notices can be issued to prohibit an activity, or the use of equipment, from emitting noise above a specified noise level. There is a right of appeal against a noise control notice to the Land and Environment Court.
Do you need an Environment Protection Licence?
The EPA is the appropriate regulatory authority for activities listed in Schedule 1 of the POEO Act and is responsible for issuing Environment Protection Licences to conduct those activities.
A licence may also be required if certain waste activities are carried out on your facility, such as the storage or generation of certain hazardous wastes.
Small and medium size businesses generally do not require an Environmental Protection Licence. A licence is mainly required by larger businesses or in industries that have been identified as having potentially significant environmental impacts.
Licences are usually issued with conditions. These conditions may include requirements for pollution limits, monitoring, mandatory environmental audit programs, pollution studies, pollution reduction programs or financial assurances.
To find out if you require a licence call the DECC Environment Line on 131 555, or refer to Guide to Licensing under the POEO Act 1997 and check Schedule 1 of the POEO Act.
Businesses that do not require a licence are still required to comply with environmental laws.
Trade waste permit or agreement
Generally, businesses must have a written agreement or permit to discharge trade wastewater to the sewer.
You must negotiate a trade waste permit with your water authority (either Sydney Water, Hunter Water Corporation or your local council) before discharging any trade waste to the sewer. The permit establishes the discharge conditions for the wastewater.
Dangerous goods include flammable, toxic or corrosive substances, such as solvents, which should be stored in containers displaying the relevant diamond-shaped label.
Since 1 September 2005 businesses that store dangerous goods in their premises may have to notify WorkCover NSW. The need to notify depends on the amount stored.
Page last updated: 13 April 2011