Managing Contaminated Sites

NSW Government agencies with large landholdings need to better manage their contaminated sites.

When contaminated sites are reported to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) there are long delays in assessing the extent of contamination. The EPA also lacks the management controls to ensure that all significantly contaminated sites are actively monitored and key milestones for remediation are met.

Most agencies could manage contaminated sites better

Procedures for managing contaminated sites vary widely across the major landholding government agencies. While some agencies have developed comprehensive procedures, others:

  • provide little or no guidance to their staff on their obligations to notify the EPA of significantly contaminated sites

  • do not cover how to deal with contamination issues when leasing, buying  or selling land

  • focus only on specific risks like building sites with asbestos, rather than all contamination.

The largest public landholder, the Department of Trade and Investment, Regional Infrastructure and Services (DTIRIS), has now developed procedures for identifying contaminated sites. It has also recently conducted a desktop review to identify potential sites and ranked them according to risk. DTIRIS is still developing a program to undertake detailed assessments of the sites ranked as high risk and has just commenced remediation work for a number of these sites.

DTIRIS is yet to develop a long-term strategy for its other sites and is yet to recognise a liability for contamination in its financial report. Of the sites it has ranked as high risk, seven large derelict mines on Crown land are potentially a high risk to the environment and public health, and may need to be notified to the EPA.

‘DTIRIS and other agencies should ensure comprehensive, risk-based policies and procedures are in place to identify and manage their contaminated sites including the purchasing, selling, leasing or transferring of land,’ said the NSW Auditor-General, Mr Grant Hehir.

EPA’s prioritisation and assessment of sites are inadequate

When sites are reported to the EPA, there is no systematic process for prioritising their assessment and there is currently a backlog of almost 800 sites awaiting assessment.

There is a range of sites that the EPA could have declared as significantly contaminated and decided not to. Even though the EPA has documented reasons for these decisions, they are not supported by clear principles and could result in inconsistencies and poor regulation.

‘The EPA should implement a streamlined process for prioritising and assessing sites, with clear rules around whether a significantly contaminated site should be declared,’ said the Auditor-General.

Monitoring and management of significantly contaminated sites needs to improve

The EPA’s capacity to properly monitor and publicly report on the management of significantly contaminated sites is hindered by its databases. The databases are not well integrated, making it difficult for the EPA to track the history of sites and progress with remediation. The EPA is currently developing a combined database to address this.

Additionally, the EPA’s internal procedures do not sufficiently guide staff on how to escalate regulatory activities when a collaborative approach is not working. For example, there is no guidance within EPA’s internal procedures on when a voluntary management proposal should be elevated to a management order or when a penalty notice should be issued if an owner or polluter is not complying.

‘The EPA should implement a combined database to better monitor regulated sites and improve public reporting, and provide better guidance to staff on when to escalate regulatory activities,’ said the Auditor-General.

The EPA should begin recovering costs

The EPA does not currently recover its costs for the preparation, monitoring and compliance action associated with an order or an approved voluntary management proposal. Legislation allows the EPA to recover costs on behalf of the government.

‘The EPA should begin recovering costs for those sites requiring additional administrative work because of their complexity or the non-cooperation of owners or polluters,’ the Auditor-General added.

Further information

Barry Underwood, Executive Officer, on 9275 7220 or 0403 073 664;