How the laws affect you
There are many laws, regulations, policies and guidelines to help protect the environment in NSW and give guidance to business and industry.
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 can carry serious penalties. If you break the laws and end up in court, in the majority of cases the prosecutor need not prove that you intended to cause the damage or pollution. Even accidents can result in prosecution and penalties.
What should you know about environmental laws?
Did you know that if, for example, a staff member or contractor causes water pollution due to work at your site, you could be liable?
Everyone involved in your business (including owners, managers, supervisors, operators, contractors and subcontractors) needs to be aware of envrionmental 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 dilligence to prevent the contravention of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 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
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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, wash water, soil, debris, detergent, paint, cement slurry, building materials 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.
For landscapers this could mean storing materials in a location where they could wash into a road gutter, or failing to install adequate sediment controls. (See Using water wisely and Controlling erosion and sediment)
Air pollution means emitting any impurities, including odours, smoke, fuel or any other substances. Operators must maintain and use equipment and deal with materials in a proper and efficient manner to prevent any air pollution at all times. (See Keeping the air clean)
Under section 142A of the POEO Act it is an offence to pollute land. Additionally it is an offence to wilfully or negligently cause any substance to leak, spill or otherwise escape in a manner than harms or is likely to harm the environment. (See Controlling erosion and sediment and Using and Storing Chemicals)
By law, you must not allow noise to be generated as a result of the failure to maintain or operate machinery or deal with materials in a proper and efficient manner. (See also Controlling noise)
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Hazardous materials and waste
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. Make sure you're aware of all the legal requirements before using, storing, transporting and disposing of hazardous materials (eg. dangerous goods and chemicals). (See Using & storing chemicals)
The laws relating to chemical storage vary depending on the amount you are storing. For more information contact WorkCover NSW.
The movement or most hazardous waste must be tracked during its transport to a facility for treatment, recycling or disposal. Waste may be tracked 'online' - contact the DECC Environment Line on 131 555 for more information.
The most effective wasy of dealing with hazardous materials is to:
- avoid them by replacing them with less toxic materials
- use work practices that minimise their use
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Under the POEO Act there are heavy penalties for unlawful disposal of waste. The owners of waste (as well as transporters and receivers) have a responsibilty 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 ongoing reduction in waste generation.
The following hierarchy for managing waste, from most to least desirable, is recommended:
- 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.
(See also Getting smart about waste)
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Who 'polices' environmental law?
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 industies that have the potential to seriously affect the environment. Local councils are the appropriate regulatory authority for almost everything else.
This means, if you are working on a project for a government organisation (including local councils) then the EPA would have powers to regulate your activities. If you are working on a project for a private organisation then the local council will most likely regulate your activities.
The POEO Act gives the appropriate regulatory authority the powers to issue clean-up and prevention notices, and to issue on-the-spot fines or commence prosecutions where environmental laws have not been complied with.
Clean-up and prevention notices are issued to require clean-up action when pollution has occurred, or require an activity to be carried out in an environmentally satisfactory manner.
You must report incidents that harm the environment
If a pollution incident occurs during an activity and it causes or threatens to cause material harm to the environment, by law you must tell the appropriate regulatory authority - either your local Council or the EPA. Failure to do so is an offence with the same maximum penalties as offences of actual pollution.
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 out the activity, employees, occupiers, contractors and agents.
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You must report land contamination
You must notify the EPA of any land contamination that poses a significant risk of harm to human health or the environment. This 'duty to notify contamination' falls on the owner of the property and on the person whose activities have cause the contamination. For more information contact 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.
What are the penalties for not acting within the law?
The most serious offences (called 'Tier 1' offences in the POEO Act) 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 penalities for the most serious offences are up to $2 million for a company or $500,000 for an individual and/or 4 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 $1500 for companies and $750 for individuals.
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Laws you need to know about
- Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 and Regulations (covers water, air, noise pollution and waste disposal)
- Pesticides Act 1999
- Dangerous Goods Act 1975
- Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 and Regulations (determines when a development application needs to be lodged with the local council)
- Rivers and Foreshores Improvement Act 1948 (administered by the NSW Department of Natural Resources)
- Water Management Act 2000 (administered by the NSW Department of Natural Resources)
- Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995
- Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Federal Government legislation).
Stay current and up-to-date by regularly visiting What's new in law.
Page last updated: 27 February 2011