An independent survey of 67 Waste and Recycling Industry Queensland members has recommended an inquiry into the performance of the Department of Environment and Science.
Queensland Economic Advocacy Solutions (QEAS), an independent market research firm, was commissioned to electronically survey members of Waste and Recycling Industry Queensland (WRIQ) on the performance of the waste industry regulator – the Department of Environment & Science (DES).
Responses throughout November and December 2018 were received from 67 members representing 70 per cent of the membership employing 4556 Queenslanders. The resulting QEAS Queensland Environmental Regulator Survey 2018 was produced.
The crucial repercussions of the document highlighted concerns towards the effectiveness of the Environmental Services and Regulation (ESR) Division and its ongoing relationship with the sector.
The WRIQ roadmap for ESR improvement highlights a need to improve consultation, education, set clear goals, targets and expectations and improve expertise and ESR resourcing. Other key recommendations are to offer consistent advice and improved response times and that ESR be independent of politics.
WRIQ members overwhelmingly believe Queensland’s DES and ESR responsibilities to be important. But 42 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed that the ESR was reviewing legislation and policy and compliance frameworks well. Almost 70 per cent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that ESR were taking a proportionate and consistent compliance and enforcement program and working collaboratively with government, industry and community groups.
Rick Ralph, WRIQ Chief Executive Officer, says that it’s unprecedented that 70 per cent of the industry with 45,000 employees were so universal in their scathing criticism of the regulator.
Rick says that there is a fundamental disconnect between regulators focused heavily on penalising operators.
“The regulator makes the rules and that’s their policy – it’s all about enforcement. They don’t offer any solutions. When something gets too hard, they are fundamentally ineffective in understanding the economic impacts of an unregulated environment,” Rick says.
In terms of where the regulator is performing well, select WRIQ members had positive feedback on their dealings with individual officers, but singled out the systematic flaws in the regulatory strategy.
Across the board, survey respondents rated the performance of ESR as poor to average, with an 85 per cent negative rating for problem solving, 86 per cent negative for stopping illegal dumping and 77 per cent criticising the decisions as being unsound, not evidence-based, and illogical.
The wide range of feedback segments covered consistency and confidence, drivers of actions, the Odour Busters program, resourcing and expertise, rogue operators and accountability and compliance versus education.
The Queensland Government’s Odour Busters taskforce was established to deal with nuisance odours in the Swanbank area.
The Odour Abatement Taskforce, also known as Odour Busters, was intended to operate from a local base at Redbank Plains to crack down on offensive odours and other environmental concerns in the area for 12 months in 2018.
One respondent asked why no findings had been published, with vague information on social media.
Rick says that industry and ESR need to actually commission a training program with industry so that officers understand what best practice looks like. Where complexities happen in regulation, there is a process of review to sort out the problem.
Criticism was also drawn at the ability of the regulator to conduct site audits and promote better compliance, and that inspections were part of a structured audit and compliance program rather than reactions to community sentiment.
One of the key recommendations of the report was a complete overhaul of the system for the government to act swiftly and produce an independent investigation into the current system. The goal would be to install an independent EPA, with four in five respondents indicating their support for such an agency.
According to Rick, an EPA should have an independent board.
“That authority then has clarity, purpose and a relationship with the industry and it actually works with the industry to find solutions, not just penalise,” Rick says.
“Universally where there’s been an EPA, it’s shown to be the model that actually works.”
He adds that the Victorian EPA’s modernisation showed how important it was to reinvigorate old structures with contemporary models, while stopping short of making recommendations on a Queensland structure and leaving it to an independent review.
WRIQ put a 10-point plan to the minister and is now waiting for a formal response from the director general. The 10-point plan is focused on building a commercial level playing field on how the industry is managed and non-adversarial. The plan includes that ESR establish an internal reference panel with an independent chair. It also advocates for a third-party review into ESR management and the independent review into environmental regulation.
“The environment minister has agreed to establish a working group and we have provided every Queensland minister with a copy of our report calling upon them to support the environment minister in overhauling the performance of the state’s regulator.
“Regrettably, not a single minister has acknowledged that correspondence and in terms of government engagement with its stakeholders, this lack of support is challenging for our members,” Rick says.
He says the review into ESR at DES should be conducted this year in order to prevent its politicisation in the 2020 election.
A DES spokesperson said it takes its role as Queensland’s environment regulator seriously and works closely with all industry stakeholders.
The spokesperson said that the department will take prompt enforcement action on industry members not compliant with their obligations.
“The Odour Abatement Taskforce is a twelve-month program, being undertaken to address odour and other environmental nuisance issues within the Swanbank Industrial Area.”
It said DES is undertaking a comprehensive education program to help improve compliance.
Queensland Government Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch said the DES recently underwent a restructure following machinery of government changes in 2018.
This has seen the creation of a new waste branch within the department specific to waste and resource recovery. She said the feedback from WRIQ will be considered by the department and help the government improve its stakeholder engagement.
This article was published in the May edition of Waste Management Review.