RESIDENTS taking on the roles of environmental watchdogs due to “inadequate” staffing levels at the local NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) office have welcomed news of a parliamentary inquiry into the agency.
The NSW Upper House will investigate the state’s peak environment regulator after numerous concerns had been raised in recent years about the agency’s capacity to fulfil its responsibilities.
Opponents of Santos’ proposed $2 billion coal seam gas project in Narrabri were left outraged in March when the EPA fined
the company just $1500 over a toxic spill the year before that contaminated an aquifer.
In welcoming the inquiry, Mary’s Mount farmer Phil Herbert said many residents had lost confidence that the EPA’s Armidale branch was resourced well enough to monitor all the region’s many mining projects.
He said private citizens were having to spend an extraordinary amount of time and money – even risking arrest – to keep tabs on the mines’ operations and uncover breaches of their environmental conditions. “There is simply a lack of resources to fully satisfy the community’s expectation on these regulatory requirements,” he said.
“There have been a number of cases where Santos has self-reported and the EPA has just taken all Santos data on the basis of which to conduct an investigation.”
An EPA spokeswoman told The Leader that the Armidale branch had seven staff – not including administration workers – and less than 15 investigations currently underway.
Community groups in other parts of the state have accused the EPA of botching prosecutions and covering up breaches, with one matter referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Labor’s environment spokesman Luke Foley specifically mentioned the $1500 fine slapped on Santos as a decision that concerned him when moving the motion in parliament last week.
In a statement, EPA chief executive officer Barry Buffier said: “The EPA welcomes the inquiry and the opportunity to increase public awareness and understanding about the important role the EPA plays in protecting communities and the environment in NSW.”