This audit assessed whether the State’s unallocated Crown land and unmanaged reserves are being effectively managed to minimise human and environmental health risks from contamination on these sites.
The audit focused on unallocated Crown land and unmanaged reserves as these sites make up over one third of the State’s total land area.
We reviewed the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) as the agency responsible for administering the Contaminated Sites Act 2003 on these lands. We also reviewed how the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage (DPLH) identified, investigated, reported and where necessary remediated contamination on unallocated Crown land and unmanaged reserves.
In December 2006, Western Australia’s Contaminated Sites Act 2003 (the Act) and the associated Contaminated Sites Regulations 2006 became law. The purpose of the Act is to protect human health, the environment and environmental values through identification, recording, management and remediation of contaminated sites.
Contamination can occur from a variety of past and current activities including:
- tailings dumps from mining
- chemical storage and disposal sites
- timber milling and treatment sites
- illegal dumping.
The Act defines contaminated as ‘having a substance in or on that land, water or site at above background concentrations that presents, or has the potential to present, a risk of harm to human health, the environment or any environmental value’.
Since the Act came into effect over 4,200 known or suspected contaminated sites have been reported to DWER.
The Act places requirements on a number of people, including owners and occupiers of land, to report known or suspected contamination to DWER. Timely and accurate reporting of these sites is critical to addressing potential contamination and associated health and environmental risks.
Known contamination must be reported within 21 days, and suspected contamination as soon as reasonably practical. There are significant penalties for failing to report sites in a timely manner.
Under the Act, DWER is responsible for:
- receiving reports of suspected or known contamination
- classifying sites according to the level of contamination and action needed in accordance with Schedule 1 of the Act (Appendix 1)
- advising the land owners or managers of the follow-up actions required
- maintaining records in a publicly accessible contaminated sites database and register.
Land owners and managers are responsible for completing the follow-up and remediation actions prescribed by DWER. A number of State agencies own or manage land that is contaminated with substances such as cyanide, lead, diesel and asbestos.
DPLH is responsible for managing contamination on the 2.3 million km2 of State Crown land (93% of the State). When Crown land is vested or leased to other departments, organisations or people, the responsibility for identifying, reporting and managing contamination is also transferred.
Unallocated Crown land (UCL) and unmanaged reserves (UMR) account for nearly 1 million km2 (38%) of the State and make up the bulk of the potentially contaminated land that DPLH manages. UCL is Crown land that is not reserved for a purpose or leased but may have previously been used for a purpose such as mining or agriculture and has now returned to the State. UMR is land that has been reserved for a purpose, such as for landfill, road reserves, a railway siding or a park, but is no longer or has never been used for that purpose.
The Act also established the:
- Contaminated Sites Committee
This is an independent 3 to 5 member committee, which determines appeals against DWER’s classification of sites and makes decisions on remediation responsibility. The committee’s decisions can be appealed to the Supreme Court on a question of law.
- Contaminated Sites Management Account (CSMA)
On average the CSMA has about $1.3 million available each year, and nearly $16 million has been allocated since 2006, to investigate or remediate contaminated sites the State is responsible for. Funds can also be used to ensure compliance with investigation, clean-up and hazard abatement notices. The Minister for Environment decides the allocation of funds, and DWER manages the CSMA on behalf of the Minister.
DWER takes a staged approach to investigation and remediation of site contamination. It agrees the scope of works with each agency prior to paying the full funding amount at the beginning of each stage. No milestones or completion timeframes are set.
The bulk of funds in the CSMA are from parliamentary appropriations, with small amounts coming from fees for information searches or sales of remediated land.
In 2007, the then Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) approved a program developed by the Department of Lands (now part of DPLH) for identification and reporting of sites.
The intent of the program was to systematically assess and report on all known and suspected contaminated sites under DPLH responsibility as soon as possible. Around 5,000 sites were included in the program. The majority of these were UCL and UMR.
The Act required that the program be submitted to the CEO for approval within 6 months of the Act commencing and had to include the:
- sites or types of sites to be identified and reported
- methods to be used to identify the sites to be reported
- timetable for the identification and reporting of sites
- time within which the program was to be completed
- reasons why it was considered necessary or desirable for the sites to be identified and reported.
DEC approved the program without a completion date as it recognised the large task facing DPLH, with preliminary estimates of over 100 years to assess all the sites. It did however require DPLH to provide annual progress reports.
DPLH committed to at least 60 desktop assessments and 6 site inspections each year. Assessment numbers were expected to increase over time as DPLH processes became more efficient. Inspection numbers were always dependent on available resources.