Inadequate monitoring and tracking of VIC chemical waste

Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has been advised to improve its systems and process relating to chemical waste management, following its failure to properly monitor dangerous chemicals and sites across the state.

An audit was commissioned by the EPA board in the wake of the largest illegal chemical waste dumping operation in the state’s history, and the subsequent discovery of illegally stockpiled chemical waste in several sites across northern and western Melbourne.

The audit conducted by Ernst and Young (EY) covers the EPA’s management of 14 chemical waste sites between January 2016 and April 2019.

The review was prompted after more than six million litres of chemical waste were discovered at the warehouses as part of targeted inspections related to 2018’s West Footscray toxic warehouse fire. 

“The past practices revealed by this report will be unacceptable to Victorians, and they are unacceptable to me,” EPA chief executive Dr Cathy Wilkinson said.

“For that, EPA apologises to Victorians.”

She said the challenges facing EPA have evolved rapidly in recent years, 

“Combating growing waste crime will require new technologies, intelligence capability and specialist surveillance experts,” Wilkinson said.

“We are working more closely than ever before with Victoria Police and WorkSafe to protect the community from pollution and waste.”

The EY report found during the audit period, the EPA had inadequate record keeping and a failure to properly monitor the transport of hazardous waste.

EY stated in the report that the audit identified gaps in EPA’s governance practices supporting effective oversight of incident prioritisation decisions, lack of clearly defined standards and expectations for retaining key pollution report documents, and opportunities to enhance the use of intelligence sources across the organisation.

Key findings included inconsistent approach to the documentation of pollution reports within Integrated Business Information System, inadequate monitoring and poor quality of pollution reports, incident reporting and performance.

“Public intelligence data and information was not effectively used to inform the proactive identification of emerging issues or behaviours that may result in future noncompliance or risks to community safety,” the report found.

The review also found that during the audit period, there was inadequate monitoring, reporting and trend analysis of Waste Transport Certificate data needed to identify trends and areas of key risks associated with chemical waste storage.

The report found that these certificates were not monitored, resulting in EPA staff not having full knowledge of risks.

Another finding said the EPA operated in “strong silos”, with limited ability to combat illegal storage of waste or address pollution problems important to community safety.

The Victorian Government recently invested $71.4 million to safely manage high-risk and hazardous wastes including a Waste Crime Prevention Inspectorate within EPA.

Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the state government had given record funding to the EPA to strengthen its operations.

“It is my expectation that the EPA works tirelessly to protect the environment and keeps Victorians safe from pollution. This is what the community deserves,” she said.

EY auditors made a number of recommendations following its findings, including system control enhancement recommendations.

“Management also needs to introduce formalised auditing processes over response decision making,” the report states. 

“Between now and the legislative go-live, we recommend that management conducts an assessment of other waste sites to review the decision making and outcomes of high priority pollution reports and whether a follow up inspection of the sites is required.”

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