The Queensland Parliament passed stronger environmental laws last week to prevent Queensland taxpayers footing multi-million dollar environmental clean-up bills.
The Environmental Protection (Chain of Responsibility) Amendment Bill 2016 – which received bipartisan support – gave the environmental regulator greater powers to pursue companies, entities and individuals who failed to uphold their environmental responsibilities.
Environment Minister Dr Steven Miles said the new laws signalled the Palaszczuk Government’s intent to crack-down on poor environmental performers who considered site rehabilitation as a mere after-thought.
“Up until now, our regulators have only dealt with the person or the business which directly holds an environmental authority,” Dr Miles said.
“These new laws create a legal chain of responsibility for environmental harm. The people hiding behind a business which is doing the wrong thing will now be expected to take action, and the people who should make a contribution to clean up and rehabilitate the site will be called on to do so.
“Those who are diligent in their environmental responsibilities have absolutely nothing to be concerned about, whereas those who have been reckless might find themselves connected by the chain of responsibility.
“The Palaszczuk Government is not prepared to wait until a catastrophe occurs before taking action – the cost of which will be at the expense of Queensland taxpayers.”
Dr Miles said the new laws applied regardless of whether companies were in administration.
“To be clear, strict environmental obligations for resource companies remain the same, however the Bill gives the government new powers to ensure related parties with a significant interest or influence can also be held to account,” he said.
“Under the Bill, enforcement tools, called environmental protection orders, can now be issued to parties in the chain of responsibility.
“Previously, the government was only able to issue environmental protection orders to the holders of the environmental authority. Now the government can issue legal directives to those with significant influence over environmental management decisions.
“It is important the state’s environmental regulator has the power to identify and issue directions to parties who can, and ought to, be held accountable for their decisions and actions.”
Dr Miles said the Palaszczuk Government had been careful to ensure the “chain of responsibility’ did not impact “mum and dad investors, contractors or employees, as well as native title holders or farmers who own the land under resource tenure’.
Many of the amendments will take effect from the time the Bill was introduced on March 15 to ensure companies cannot change control or structures to avoid the impact of the proposed changes.
Lock the Gate president Drew Hutton welcomed the legislation as a “significant step in solving the huge rehabilitation liability facing this State”.
“These new laws will allow the Queensland Government to track down those companies that have caused huge problems in this State,’ Mr Hutton said.
“The legislation will help prevent taxpayers from having to foot the bill for irresponsible contamination.”
Dr Miles said the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection worked closely with concerned stakeholders to fine-tune the legislation.
“The amendments to this Bill are proof that this Government is listening to feedback and is prepared to fine-tune innovative legislation,’ he said.
“The environment has a right to be healthy, and the community has a right to a healthy environment.
“Ideally, I would like this legislation to sit unused – collecting dust on a shelf somewhere.
“But given the reckless behaviour of some companies, I will not hesitate to take action to make polluters pay if it becomes necessary,’’ he said.
The move was also supported by the Queensland Resources Council.
“The QRC has been working closely with the government to ensure that the net wasn’t cast wider than it should have been and unnecessarily capture farmers, small investors and native title holders, and to provide certainty to investors and financiers,” acting chief executive Greg Lane said.
“We know that taxpayers don’t want their hard-earned dollars spent on cleaning up after poor environmental performers.”