Government moves to enforce ‘chain of responsibility’ system for costly environmental clean-ups

The Palaszczuk Government has moved to introduce new laws to prevent irresponsible businesses from leaving Queensland taxpayers with costly environmental clean-up bills.

Environment Minister Dr Steven Miles said the Queensland Government would no longer tolerate companies simply closing their doors and leaving taxpayers to clean up after them.

Dr Miles, who today (Tuesday) introduced in Parliament the Environmental Protection (Chain of Responsibility) Amendment Bill, said stronger laws were required to deal with the looming problem.

“In the past 12 months, the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection has faced increasing difficulties in ensuring that sites operated by companies in financial difficulty continue to comply with their environmental obligations,’’ Dr Miles said.

“This has included sites such as the Yabulu Nickel Refinery, Texas Silver Mine, Collingwood Tin Mine and Mount Chalmers Gold Mine.

“Urgent amendments are required to ensure that the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) can effectively impose a chain of responsibility, so that these companies and their related parties bear the cost of managing and rehabilitating sites.

“This has emerged as a looming major problem with the downturn in the mining sector. Without additional powers in the Environmental Protection Act (EP Act), there is a risk that the State will incur operational and financial responsibility for sites in financial difficulty.

“Queenslanders are well and truly sick of seeing high-flying businessmen who think they can avoid doing the right thing by ordinary working people, the community and the environment, and that is why this chain-of-responsibility legislation is so important,’ Dr Miles said.

Dr Miles said a key feature of the new Bill was allowing environmental protection orders to be issued to “a party” that had some relevant relationship to a company that was in financial difficulty (which may include, for example, a parent company or executive officer).

“In my environmental portfolio, there have been too many occasions where companies have closed their doors, and what’s been revealed is that there is no money, or not enough money left in the till to deal with the costly clean-up and rehabilitation of sites,’ Dr Miles said.

“There are some businesses that don’t seem to have any clear plan for how they will meet their responsibilities. There are others that seem to think they can avoid doing the right thing if they hire a room full of high-priced lawyers to restructure their affairs to avoid meeting their proper responsibility.

“The Government won’t tolerate seeing a business deliberately isolating or deliberately holding back funds that should be made available to meet their obligations to the workers, or the community,’ he said.

Dr Miles said the existing provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1994 (EP Act) were inadequate and did not allow the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) to impose obligations on entities related to an insolvent company to prevent or clean-up environmental damage.

“The placing of Queensland Nickel Pty Ltd (Queensland Nickel) into voluntary administration in January 2016 highlighted limitations in the EP Act to ensure responsibility for environmental obligations when companies enter external administration.

“Townsville’s Yabulu nickel refinery requires ongoing management to ensure that contaminated waters that seep from its tailings dam are pumped back into the dam at a rate of four million litres a day in order to prevent serious harm to the Great Barrier Reef.

“Every effort should be taken to ensure that Queensland Nickel and any of its related companies, including the executive officers of those companies, bear the cost of managing and protecting the site to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

“This Bill is aimed at achieving this,’ Dr Miles said.

Other key points in the Bill include:

  • Providing that if one of these environmental protection orders is issued, and the recipient fails to comply with it, the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection may require the recipient to pay the costs of taking action stated in the order or monitoring compliance with the order.
  • Enabling the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection to amend environmental authorities when they are transferred to impose a condition requiring the provision of financial assurance.
  • Ensuring that authorised officers under the EP Act have powers to access sites no longer subject to an environmental authority.

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