Inside EPA Victoria's $162 million modern regulator makeover

By David Donaldson

April 9, 2018

Melbourne’s Yarra — the so-called river that runs upside down — is hardly known for being clean.

But it used to be even worse.

When Victoria’s Environmental Protection Authority was established in the 1970s, “the Yarra used to run red and green depending on the wool dyes in the factories,” explains EPA boss Nial Finegan. “You had gross pollution coming out of chimneys and out of drains into the Yarra.”

While the large single-source polluters are mostly gone now, the EPA still faces plenty of challenges.

The agency covers everything from the Hazelwood mine fire down to cigarette butts. Legacy pollution from industry and asbestos remains a problem, as do the power stations in the Latrobe Valley.

Not to mention that since the EPA was established in 1971 — just the third of its type in the world — Melbourne’s population has nearly doubled.

Major reforms

To tackle the changing nature of the EPA’s work, the agency is currently undergoing its most significant round of reform since it was established. This will give it better tools to tackle polluters, broadening certain powers and shifting its regulatory approach towards prevention.

The reforms follow a review into the EPA, which was promised by Labor in the lead-up to the last election. The Andrews government then agreed to all the recommendations — in full, in part or in principle — once the 400-odd page report was published in March 2016, providing $162 million on top of the agency’s regular budget to implement the changes.

From July 1, the EPA will become a fully-fledged statutory authority with its own board — which the government is currently in the process of appointing — for the first time. Last year’s legislation also created the role of chief environmental scientist, recognising the centrality of science to the EPA’s work, with Andrea Hinwood appointed to the position in May last year.

The reforms have also given the EPA a statutory purpose for the first time — to “protect the environment and people by preventing and reducing harm from pollution and waste.”

This is part of a shift towards focusing on the health impacts of pollution, which has included establishing an environmental public health unit.

“If you think about protecting the environment, it was such a broad church. One of the things we needed was focus,” explains Finegan.

Checking the locks

A second round of legislative change, expected to be passed by parliament this year, will officially give the EPA the tools to shift its regulatory focus from just fixing problems to preventing them before they occur.

Traditionally, the EPA generally had to wait for something to go wrong before it could step in — or in Finegan’s words:

“You need to let the horse bolt out of the stable, I have to catch the horse, prove it was your horse and put it back into the stable.”

Instead, for the new, reformed EPA, “it’s about making sure you have the appropriate locks on the stable door in the first place.”

Subject to parliamentary passage, this would mean, for example, “when you’re coming in to do a new business, rather than meet some thresholds in pollution emissions, what is your understanding of your environmental impact and have you worked to minimise that as far as reasonably practical?” he explains.

“Under the 1970s act, we were basically a pollution licensing authority. So how much harm can we cause to the environment before it goes beyond thresholds?” Finegan says.

“We are no longer a pollution licensing authority, a brown regulator. We are a regulator of those impacts of the environment on human health that can cause harm. So that is a really, really important step change for us.”

Co-design and trust

The EPA has been criticised in recent years for how it engages with the community, with problems surrounding air quality monitoring during the Hazelwood fire and the agency’s handling of asbestos contamination in a former industrial site in Sunshine North.

The EPA is changing how it works with the community in an effort to fix the distrust these incidents have created.

Finegan tells the story of a co-design process they did with the Latrobe Valley.

“When I came into this role, we met with the community down there and they said ‘we don’t trust the EPA, you let us down during the Hazelwood mine fire’,” he recounts.

Since the fire, air quality in the valley has been consistent. Thanks to geography, emissions from the power stations are trapped, resulting in a persistent haze. The community wanted an air monitoring system that the EPA knew would show the air quality was generally the same day to day.

“Why would we spend good public money to measure a straight line?” says Finegan. “We were saying it’s not good for you. They said we don’t trust you.”

So they sat down with the community and told them the budget, explained the other possibilities for monitoring that might be more useful, and asked them to come up with a plan that would meet their own needs and the regulatory requirements of the EPA.

“We said: ‘you could buy two of these Rolls Royce type devices, and that’s all you can have, or you can buy a whole load of different things’. So through the co-design they’ve come up with a really good mix.

“In the co-design to help the process we introduced experts from CSIRO, from the universities, our own experts. What you had was a really positive exercise, which has come up with a design of some air monitoring kit. We’re about to roll that out.”

If you went and talked to the Latrobe Valley community now, “they would say other organisations need to be like the EPA”, he thinks.

“What has changed is that in the 1970s it was government telling the community what to do, and the community said ‘okay that’s government we trust them’.

“In 2018 and going forward, rightfully the community has different expectations and holds us to a different standard. It isn’t for us to just say, trust us. We have to earn that trust. The cornerstone to that is us doing our job openly and transparently.”

Empowering communities

“We cannot protect the environment alone”, says Finegan. This means working with a whole range of other government agencies, NGOs, companies and the community.

Allowing Victorians to report cars that litter is one way of getting the community to assist the EPA in its work — and it’s now being emulated elsewhere.

“80% of the rubbish on beaches is cigarette butts,” he notes. “Giving the community the ability to report those who litter, it empowers them. It’s our environment and we’re not disempowered, we own it.”

Embracing diversity helps with this empowerment effort.

Many of the areas that suffer industrial pollution have large immigrant populations, who are often “less aware of their rights, how to deal with government, how to complain,” Finegan says, noting that equity is one of the organisational principles contained in the EPA’s legislation. Stronger ties to different communities make it easier to spot problems when they occur.

Finegan is optimistic that the legislative and organisational changes taking place at the EPA will strengthen its ability to serve the community into the future.

“We are building a new EPA that’s fit for purpose. We’re 47 years old and we’re very proud of that, but we want to be still valid and contemporary for the next 40-odd years.”

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