Wednesday 23rd of October 2019

An independent EPA

In the contemporary world the largest pressures on our societies relate to our relationship with the natural world. Be it water resources, our own pollution from industry and urban expanses, or climate change. And our societies relies on organisations such as the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) to keep check on these pressures, to draw attention to them, and to mitigate their effects.

However, in recent times the effectiveness of the EPA has been somewhat questionable. The most notable case of this conduct recently was the when Tim Powe, senior manager in the EPA reviled "...political considerations have stopped the introduction of air-quality monitoring and mandatory community health checks at Mt Isa's two smelters - the largest source of lead emissions in Australia. "[1] Since this expose testing has found "one to four years, have tested higher than the recommended dosages deemed safe by the State Government "[2]

The list also includes lead and zinc dust blowing off the Townsville port onto the houses of surrounding suburbs [3], the Alcoa Aluminium refinery in Wagerup [4], Port Pirie's lead contamination [5], and the Narangba Industrial Estate fire [6]. And on and on.

But what are the causes of these EPA shortcomings? First, it needs to be said that as with every other public service, integrity and transparency not only has to be done, it has to be seen to be done. The public needs to feel confidence in the authority as part of their public service, and this has to be earned.

As for these shortcomings, the EPA, instead of always being the authority to monitor and enforce standards, is often required to oversee industry based monitoring. Be it data collected on facilities owned and operated by industry, or provided by outside contractors. Either way, unless the EPA have the resources to own and operate, as well as dictate the location of monitoring stations then confidence is hard to hold. For instance, the prevailing winds may not always blow across a lone monitoring station.

Community bringing forward concerns are often dismissed by the authority of industry, and with only limited monitoring, the burden of proof falls in the laps of community to become the experts and set up their own monitoring in order to get the EPA to begin doing their jobs. This was seen in Western Australia where a community based air quality monitoring group formed, and out of their own pockets performed sampling which contradicted EPA measurements leading to increased funding for the EPA in that area.

This story does not seem unique, and in a country which is surging on heavy minerals industries it certainly won't be the last. But the fact it comes to this indicates a failing. To rectify this a number of things need to happen. The EPA needs to own and operate more of its own equipment. The data needs to be public, and available live (some EPA sites currently provide hourly data, but the list is incomplete[7]). The public needs to be able to lobby for new monitoring stations, with mobile stations available for quick deployment in places awaiting a permanent station. Minimum levels of monitoring need to be increased, both in terms of site and compounds of interest.

With minerals processing being such a profitable industry it shouldn't be a hard call to have a monitoring tax imposed on them, and used to fund these expansions. But it is important to cut the direct ties between industry and the EPA monitoring. There certainly needs to be cooperation between the bodies in mitigating situation, but if the EPA can't be seen to be totally independent then their purpose is diminished.

And finally, there should also be funding given to NGOs to monitor the EPA. They need to move from being the body that oversees industry self-monitoring, to a monitoring body who is accountable to the public.

[1] Mt Isa kids 'at lead risk' as tests canned, Michelle Wiese Bockmann, The Australian, 21 June 2006

[2] High lead levels in kids, Leonie Johnson, Townsville Bulletin, 13 December 2006

[3] Lead found in black dust, Tony Raggatt, Townsville Bulletin, 4 April 2007, (Web link)

[4] Alcoa refinery at Wagerup inquiry, WA Legislative Council, 28 October 2004, (Web link)

[5] New study attempts to solve Port Pirie's lead puzzle, Simon Royal, ABC Stateline, 10 February 2006, (Web link)

[6] Narangba Fire, Lisa Backhouse, ABC Stateline, 26 June 2006, (Web link)

[7] Queensland EPA Air monitoring, (Web link)