Volume Six 2012 focusing on Environment, Water and Regional Infrastructure

Contamination and Regulation

“Last year, I reported that the cost to remediate contaminated sites in New South Wales is largely unknown and that remains the case today’” said Mr Achterstraat.

“This is unlikely to change because parties responsible for contaminated sites can choose not to provide remediation costs, for sites regulated by EPA,” said Peter Achterstraat. “The complexity and uniqueness of each contaminated site adds to the difficulty of accurately estimating costs,” he added. 

The EPA has been notified of over 1,000 potentially contaminated sites covering more than 25,000 hectares across New South Wales.

“The petroleum industry is responsible for over two thirds of contaminated sites known to the EPA in our State” said Peter Achterstraat.

The EPA completed 56 prosecutions in 2011-12 resulting in 52 convictions and nearly $1.3 million in fines and penalties. This was the highest number of prosecutions, fines and penalties in the last three years.

The average prosecution was around $22,500. The largest individual penalty issued under EPA legislation in 2011-12 was $112,500 for a pollution incident at a coal mine. The EPA advises that the incident could have been prevented if the company operating the coal mine had undertaken regular inspection and maintenance.

Legislation requires licensees to prepare, implement and test pollution-incident management plans.

“I recommend that the EPA publish the names of licensees that don’t have pollution incident management plans” said Peter Achterstraat.

The EPA audited 40 premises that pose high environmental risks during 2011-12. Of these, 34 were regulated by the EPA and six were regulated by local councils. The audits identified 62 instances of noncompliance, including fourteen considered serious or ‘high risk’. The high risk findings included instances of hazardous chemicals being stored without adequate containment and ineffective emergency response plans. 

The EPA advises that action was taken in all 62 instances of noncompliance and most have been rectified.

Water Use at Historically Low Levels 

Sydney’s water use is at historically low levels reflecting a shift in how the community uses water.  “It is pleasing to see that consumers are continuing with water saving behaviours adopted during the recent drought” said Peter Achterstraat.

Sydney Water advises that water efficiency and leak management programs have saved 31 gigalitres of water a year. Another 46 gigalitres of recycled water was used from Sydney Water’s recycled water schemes, reducing drinking water use by over 13 gigalitres.

Total water used in 2011–12 was just below 482 gigalitres. This was about the same as 2007–08 when drought restrictions and water efficiency programs were in place. 

Heavy rainfall in 2011–12 has resulted in the highest water storage levels for many years.

“Due to high water storage levels, the desalination plant suspended production on 2 July 2012,” said Peter Achterstraat. 

“When production is suspended, the operator, Sydney Desalination Plant Pty Limited, is entitled to certain payments,” he added.

The desalination plant must be in full operation when the Sydney region’s total available dam storage level is less than 70 per cent. It will continue to operate until available storage is greater than 80 per cent. Current dam storage levels are over 90 per cent.

Aboriginal Land Claims Increasing

“At the current rate of processing, it will take more than 50 years to address the current backlog of land claims” said Peter Achterstraat. 

“Despite the Department’s recent efforts to address this backlog, new land claims continue to be made and the number outstanding continues to increase” said Peter Achterstraat. “I have previously recommended an urgent review of land claims processing,” he added. Over the last four years, outstanding claims have increased by 18,152 or 236 per cent. Only 486 claims were determined during 2011-12 leaving 25,834 claims remaining at 30 June 2012.

The Department advised it has developed a pilot project with one Local Aboriginal Land Council to speed up processing of land claims, which it expects will start in November 2012. The Department hopes to apply a similar approach to claims lodged by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. Seventy three per cent of claims are lodged by the Council.

In the meantime, the Department advised it is trying to maximise the number of claims resolved by focussing on assessing claims less likely to be appealed to the Land and Environmental Court.

Voters No Show

Voter participation at the 2012 local government elections dropped to just over 82 per cent, with some 630,000 people not voting. 

“Voter participation was lower than participation rates in the 2004 (92 per cent) and 2008 (85 per cent) local government elections,” said Peter Achterstraat.

The New South Wales Electoral Commission was expecting a decline in voter participation, as most Australian States have experienced declines at local government elections over the last ten years. It was for this reason that in 2008 it recommended the government change the legislation by offering voters greater voting choices. 

An initial survey after the 2012 elections by the Commission found some respondents did not vote because they could not get to a polling place or were away. A high percentage of respondents said they prefer online voting.

The Commission believes extending the use of iVote could increase voter participation. iVote was used in the 2011 State election.

Since the 2011 state election, acceptance and usage of iVote has increased. In the Clarence by-election held in November 2011, iVote use increased by 142 per cent. The Commission is advocating changes to make iVote available during the 2016 local government elections. 

“Extending iVote’s use could result in greater participation rates. It would also reduce the average cost of voting,” said Peter Achterstraat.

The Commission spent $4.1 million on implementing iVote. 

Further Information

Barry Underwood, on 02 9275 7220 or 0403 073 664 and email barry.underwood@audit.nsw.gov.au.