The state opposition has called for environment minister Gabrielle Upton to be ‘stripped of her duties’ following a damning report on the state of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) by the auditor-general.
In a separate issue, which raises further questions about the minister’s competence, the Nature Conservation Council (NCC) has announced it will challenge a controversial state land-clearing code she has attempted to implement, which it says is ‘identical’ to one it successfully challenged in court last year.
Report’s damning findings
Among other failings identified in her report, auditor-general Margaret Crawford found the EPA:
- cannot be confident that it conducts compliance and enforcement activities consistently;
- does not monitor the consistency or quality of its regulatory activities;
- cannot be sure that correct licence conditions have been set for discharges into water;
- does not effectively detect breaches and non-compliances; and
- does limited monitoring of its performance in protecting the environment.
‘Rarely do auditor-general’s reports come as damning as this one, shadow environment minister Penny Sharpe said.
‘This report has found that NSW’s environment protection agency cannot fulfil its basic functions – functions that the community relies on to protect our environment and human health.
‘When an agency does not know how much pollution is going into our waterways, when the quality of our drinking water is declining, when illegal dumping is increasing and when clear breaches or deliberate pollution are occurring and the agency is doing nothing, it is time for the Premier to step in.
‘The minister… is clearly not capable of fixing the problems within the EPA. The Premier must intervene, strip the minister of this portfolio responsibility and put in place a minister who can urgently address the issues raised by the Auditor-General’s report.”
Land-clearing code ‘identical’ to last one
Meanwhile the NCC plans to challenge the validity of the Land Management (Native Vegetation) Code 2018, on the basis of documents received under freedom of information laws.
The 2018 Code was made in March 2018, only hours after the Land and Environment Court invalidated the 2017 Code, following the original challenge from the NCC.
The group says it is ‘identical in nature to the 2017 Code’.
It allows landholders to carry out ‘significant amounts of self-assessed clearing of native vegetation without further approval or environmental assessment, including in areas that might be home to threatened species and ecological communities,’ says the NCC.
EDO NSW CEO David Morris said NCC ‘took this decision because of the apparent failure, on the information available, of the Minister for the Environment to lawfully discharge her duty to consider the Code’s impacts to biodiversity’.
‘The documents indicate that the Minister for the Environment did not have sufficient time or material to enable to her to make the decision and that as a result, the 2018 Code was made unlawfully.’
‘This is a remarkable state of affairs,’ Mr Morris continued. ‘The legal regime makes it clear: the responsibility for ensuring that the Code does not have an unacceptable impact on the environment lies with the environment minister.
‘The Code is predicted to have significant and far reaching impacts to biodiversity.
‘These concerns are well known to the government and have been the subject of substantial public controversy.
‘The role of the Environment Minister outlined in the law is not one of rubber stamping, nor one of symbolism. Rather, it is the crucial check and balance to ensure the integrity of our state’s unique biodiversity in a changing climate,’ Mr Morris said.