Waste management: three common hazard blind spots

Environment eBulletin - 28 April 2014

Summary

Environmental regulators in Victoria and NSW in particular are focussing their enforcement activities on illegal waste handling.

In Victoria, the Environment Protection Authority set up its Illegal Dumping Strike Force last year, and has supplemented this by developing an iPhone app and other reporting tools designed to enable greater detection of non-compliant industries.

In New South Wales, the Environment Protection Authority developed its NSW Illegal Dumping Strategy 2013-15.

Both regulators have continued to be active in investigating and enforcing breaches, with notable warnings and prosecutions over recent months having been issued to a range of organisations, including those who may have considered themselves low risk.

Given the priority focus on waste enforcement, now is the time for EHS managers to consider whether your organisation is managing all of its effluent streams appropriately. If contractors are involved in your supply chain, you should also consider what action your organisation is taking to minimise liability that could potentially arise from non-compliant organisations in your supply chain.

In this eBulletin, we consider three common areas for pitfalls and suggest some solutions for your business to consider.

 

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Waste water

A common issue for many businesses, especially for those that do not operate environmentally licensed premises, is how to legally dispose of waste water. Waste water can be generated from industrial/chemical processes (process water), from day-to-day site management activities, such as cleaning plant and equipment (wash water) or from pollutants entering water during rainfall events (stormwater). Each of these poses potential risks to the environment.

Options for handling waste water range from disposal to a sewer under a trade waste agreement with a water authority, to disposal of water in accordance with prescribed industrial waste regulations. Seldom, if ever, is it appropriate to dispose of industrial/commercial liquid wastes by simply tipping them down a sink or drain on site.

The case of Advanced Moulds Pty Ltd in 2013, is a good example of why your organisation should be alert. This company was fined more than $6,000 under a penalty infringement notice, plus the regulator's costs, for discharging wash water from drums unlawfully. The EPA discovered the practice following a report from the Centre for Aquatic Pollution Identification and Management.

More broadly, liquid wastes from industrial sites, including slurries, may require handling and disposal under prescribed industrial waste regulations and therefore specific consideration should always be given to disposal requirements for liquid wastes.

 

Contaminated soils

Soils or spoil from industrial/commercial premises may contain contaminants. This means that when undertaking any form of earthworks or construction, organisations need to be mindful of how they handle soils. This is particularly true in metropolitan regions, where a dangerous assumption can be made that sites are "clean" given past land uses, when in fact the site may be contaminated due to historic infilling with contaminated sediments.

Depending on the type and volume of soils at a site, handling and disposal may be highly regulated. In Victoria, for example, contaminated soils would require classification and handling as prescribed industrial wastes.

Ensuring that you do not fall foul of the relevant handling and disposal requirements is essential in light of the Environment Protection Authority's recent increase in enforcement action in this area. Over the last year, at least four companies in Melbourne have been subject to enforcement action, ranging from official warnings to penalty infringement notices, and we predict that sanctions will get tougher as the Environment Protection Authority increases its enforcement activities.

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Emissions to air

The final blindspot for organisations is unseen emissions to air. Air pollution is subject to a complex regulatory regime at state and Federal level. Depending on the source and type of air pollution and gases emitted, it may be subject to criminal offence provisions.

Whilst many businesses are good at identifying obvious emissions which fall within licence requirements, two areas are often overlooked:

  • The regulatory impact of local council laws relating to nuisances and air quality, and requirements to comply with standards; and
  • Noise pollution.

These two areas pose a very real headache for organisations that get it wrong. Not least from the risks of regulatory enforcement from local government, and reputational risk from complaints by neighbours and community.

 

Key management questions

Key considerations for environmental managers to consider include:

  • Have all waste streams been identified? This includes on-site waste streams and where the business is providing services at other sites.
  • Do risk and obligations registers adequately set management controls for all waste streams?
  • How are water and liquid wastes handled, managed and disposed of? Is a trade waste agreement required? Are standards in a trade waste agreement being complied with?
  • Is land contaminated?
  • Are there processes in place to ensure that any soils or earthworks involving contaminated soils are handled lawfully?
  • Are documents obtained from contractors and retained as evidence of lawful waste disposal?
  • What training and auditing is done to ensure that visitors and contractors to your premises understand and comply with legal obligations?

Author

Gabrielle Guthrie, Senior Associate

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All information on this site is of a general nature only and is not intended to be relied upon as, nor to be a substitute for, specific legal professional advice. No responsibility for the loss occasioned to any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any material published can be accepted.

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