More than 20 years ago, the New South Wales government established legislation to rationalise, simplify and strengthen the regulatory framework for environmental protection in NSW. The Protection of the Environment Operations (POEO) Act was authorized in 1997 and is administered by the Environment Protection Authority (EPA). The object of the POEO Act is to protect, restore and enhance the quality of the environment in New South Wales. Upon its implementation, it repealed and replaced some of the existing Acts to achieve better regulation for environmental protection – acts repealed by the POEO Act include the Clean Air Act 1961, the Clean Waters Act 1970, the Environmental Offences and Penalties Act 1989. the Noise Control Act 1975, and the Pollution Control Act 1970.
The POEO Act 1997 covers almost all aspects of environmental protection. It includes:
- Protection of the Environment Policies (PEPs)
The Act provides a set of policies which set standards, goals, approaches, and protocols. The EPA and other authorities should rely on PEPs when making decisions which might affect the environment.
- Environment Protection Licences
The Act provides for the licensing of activities which might have potentially detrimental environmental effects. It regulates the surrounding environmental aspects, namely air, noise, water, and waste impacts, in relation to the ongoing activity on a licensed site.
- Environment Protection Notices
The POEO Act provides for clean-up, prevention, and prohibition notices. Clean-up and prevention notices can be issued by the appropriate authority (e.g. local councils or the EPA) under different circumstances. However, prohibition notices only can be issued by the Minister. Moreover, a compliance cost notice can be issued by the authority to recover costs incurred by the agency in monitoring and ensuring the clean-up action is taken.
- Environment Protection Offences and Penalties
A three-tier regime of offences was introduced by this Act. It categorises the severity level of an offence according to its cause and environmental impacts, and by whether it was committed by an individual or a corporation. Tier 1 offences can result in penalties of up to $5 million and 7 years gaol.
- Environmental Audits
The POEO Act allows that mandatory environmental audits may be required as a condition of a licence, where the EPA reasonably suspects that the license holder “has on one or more occasions contravened the POEO Act”, or “an activity is being carried out in an environmentally unsatisfactory manner”.
- Power of Investigation
Authorised officers’ powers include powers to require information or records, powers to enter and search premises, powers to question and identify persons, powers to disable intruder alarms, and powers with respect to vehicles and vessels.
- Other features
Other features in the POEO Act enable any person to bring proceedings in the Land and Environment Court for an order to remedy or restrain a breach of the Act, provide the option for EPA notices to be appealed in the Land and Environment Court, and for the EPA to develop and implement schemes involving economic measures for environment protection.
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