WA’s New Environmental Standards – Why any Industry operating in WA should Take Note

Spoonbill1 (1 of 1)

Firstly let me start with the good.

The Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) in WA is fast tracking the development of  an extensive series of environmental policies, guidelines and Standards.  This is a welcome and long overdue development as the articulation of environmental policy has languished in WA for many years.  The lack of written policy and training for DER (I use this term to embrace DER and its many predecessors)  staff has greatly hampered the successful implementation of the regional service delivery model commenced during Bryan Jenkin’s tenure as CEO in the late 1990’s and being continued by the current administration.

Now my concerns.

New environmental policy documents are being produced at a rapid rate by a new directorate (Strategic Policy and Programs).  This group is producing multiple documents simultaneously and taking them through the development, consultation and review stage in a matter of months with implementation following immediately on the heels of a limited consultation program.  It is apparent that there is not a lot of consultation occurring between those in the department developing the policies and those who will be implementing them in real world situation in the Licensing and Approvals and Compliance and Enforcement directorates. It would also appear that those developing the standards and policies are not experienced practitioners but rather are scanning publications around Australia and the world looking for examples of environmental best practice and then suggesting its adoption with little thought for the consequences for those who will need to comply with or implement the policies within WA.

The consultation model to date has very much followed the much criticised development model of ”design and defend” rather than being truly consultative and talking to the industries who will be affected by the policies during the policy development phase.  The result has been a reluctance to act on comments when they are received and some defensive responses by DER staff when the policies are criticised in consultation meetings.

The approach to implementing the new standards is to pick them up as requirements to be met when considering new approvals or renewals of existing approvals.  This is an effective and powerful  approach as it gives non statutory policy documents and standards the same power as legal instruments such as statutory regulations   and Environmental Protection Policies while retaining the flexibility to amend the policies and standards quickly when required or to be more selective in the way that they are applied.  In view of this powerful approach to implementation, it is essential that the standards and policies are practical and pragmatic in nature.  If this is not the case, regulators and proponents will soon find it extremely difficult to successfully negotiate approvals.

The Composting Standard currently in consultation is an example of the sort of difficulties that will occur unless a more practical approach is adopted by DER.  The design, siting and management standards specified in this document are collectively so stringent that it is doubtful that any existing windrow composting  could comply and very few new proposals will be commercially viable.

Another issue that compounds the difficulties resulting from the approach taken in the new policies and standards is the more punitive and less flexible  enforcement approach that is being adopted by the DER.  Recent interaction with the regulatory groups in the Department indicates a move to rigid application of the new standards  and guidelines with little room to argue for flexibility.

It is to be hoped that overall a more practical and pragmatic approach is adopted so that the State can benefit from the improved policy framework.  If it is not both existing licensees and those looking at new proposals will to carefully examine implications of the new policy framework.

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