Large scale pollution incidents often gain significant attention from the community. However, smaller scale, ‘minor’ pollutants can also cause environmental harm if left to accumulate over time. Successive governments have recognised this and empowered the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) to manage this risk on behalf of the community.
The Environmental Protection (Unauthorised Discharges) Regulations 2004 regulate discharges into the environment from light industry activity, which individually are not serious enough to cause pollution and do not need a licence, but cumulatively can cause serious and long-term harm. Ensuring that minor pollutants such as paint, detergent, laundry waste, animal waste and pesticides are prevented from spilling or leaking, prevents damage to the health of our community and our environment.
The audit assessed if DWER and local government entities (LG entities) effectively manage unauthorised discharges of minor pollutants from businesses that do not need a licence (operators). This audit focussed on operators because prior reports from my office, including Our heritage our future: health of the Swan Canning river system (2014) and Western Australian Waste Strategy: Rethinking Waste (2016) have raised concerns around the risks posed by this unlicensed group.
The audit found that DWER adopts a risk based approach to targeting its activity, which has resulted in DWER focussing its limited resources on regulating compliance with its licensing regime. We acknowledge that DWER must target its resources according to risk and it would be impractical to actively regulate all operators. However, a balance is necessary between regulating both large-scale polluters and events, and regulating the cumulative impacts of minor pollution. This is important because operators have demonstrated they not only contribute to cumulative risks but can sometimes individually be responsible for higher risk pollution incidents – in fact, unlicensed operators account for 55% of recent hazardous material incidents reported to DWER, including 72% of those rated as high risk.
It was pleasing to see that the 2 audited LG entities have taken steps to protect their local environment in recognition that this is important to their communities. DWER currently relies on assistance from LG entities to regulate operators, however, DWER does not know the extent of LG entity participation in this area. It was evident from our audit that DWER needs LG entity assistance to help prevent operators from causing environmental harm.