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Environmental Management and Pollution Control Amendment Bill 2022

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 25 October 2022

Tags: Environment, Legislation, Environment Protection Authority

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Speaker, there is a lot to say on this bill. It is a very important amendment bill, and has been such a long time coming. I particularly noted when I was looking at some of the submissions, the one by the Environmental Defenders Office, which in its submission made a compilation of all the submissions that they have made over the years on matters either specifically to do with the earlier drafting and public consultations about changes to this bill, which go back to four or five years, and to other aspects of - particularly - salmon farming legislation, the Living Marine Resources Act, and the marine farming review panel legislation. What is clear is that some of the things that are in the amendment bill before us have been talked about for many, many, many years. It has only been through two or three things that we are in a situation where the Government is bringing this amendment bill on today at all.

The first is the tireless work of community activists. I pay deep respects to the people in the community around Tasmania who have been looking at the changes in their marine environment and standing up against the fish farms that have opened up in estuaries, in inland waterways, in Macquarie Harbour and have done so much damage. It has driven a community energy in Tasmania that has taken a long time to coalesce but it has reached that point.

Of course, this bill does much more than make changes that would impact on the activities of fish farms. It affects the activities of all developments.

I pay my respects to the people who have been raising the issues tirelessly, from the Bob Brown Foundation and many others in the north west of Tasmania, making sure that the EPA, in its activities, is held to account by the laws of the day, particularly with respect to the relationship with the EPBC Act and the application of proper environmental licences that deal with the impacts of mining in the Tarkine. People like Scott Jordan, who has spent years of his life working to make sure, as best he can, that the EPA and industry are held to account for the effects of their development activities on that beautiful area, which has an eco-system echoed nowhere else on the planet. It is very special, beyond measure.

There are people around Tasmania who have been standing up against developments that have not been properly managed or developments that should never have occurred in the first place. Thanks to those people, we have a Tasmania which still has intact natural systems, unlike many other places in Australia. This was made clear in a federal report brought down last year into the state of Australia's biodiversity and our bio-regions. The health of Australia's bio-regions, and biodiversity within those regions is extremely poor relative to other countries.

Functioning, healthy eco systems occur only in about 5 per cent of the whole of Australia's land mass. In Tasmania, we hold the responsibility for 2.5 per cent of Australia's functioning, bio-diverse natural eco systems. That is a great responsibility. It has only been by communities who love this place and understand that it is beautiful, only when we stand up and look after it because the way industry has not been managed in Tasmania over the decades of Labor and Liberal governments would have meant even more damage would have occurred to these natural systems than already has.

Where we are today is this Liberal Government has promised three times that it has already made the EPA independent. But, no doubt, when this bill goes through today, a press release will appear talking about how 'we have really made the EPA independent'. This is the fourth time this Government will be talking about how it has made the EPA independent. As I said to Mr Jaensch in Estimates in September last year, we need to have more than tables and chairs moving around to have a functionally independent EPA. It has to be released from the influence of the minister, released from the influence of politicians and industry. There is no doubt - and I will explain a little more shortly - that the EPA, over its period, and increasingly so in recent years, has been required to facilitate the interests of business. That has been a direction, through the statement of expectations from the minister of the day - the recent one, from minister Jaensch - which makes it very clear that in order for the EPA to do its work, it does need to address the interests of the business sector.

That means making sure that supply chains are not broken, making sure that productivity is able to continue, and when any instances of environmental harm, pollution, waste occurs, then they need to be corrected.

There has never been a history of stringent enforcement and strong penalties in Tasmania that provide a true disincentive to businesses to just do what is unnecessary and convenient, to keep productivity going. If that means waste or pollution occurs, if accidents occur because of lack of due care, then that is just the price of doing business.

The penalties in Tasmania, if and when they are ever enacted - and they are very few and far between, and almost never in the fish-farm industry - are slight. There has never been a penalty enacted or brought by the EPA in Tasmania that made a substantial difference, functionally, to the operating practices of big business.

In Tasmania we have a situation where things are changing. In addition to the work of community people, in addition to the successful market campaign run by members of various communities who are so concerned at the deteriorating situation in the marine environment, I believe that the market campaign on the mainland to inform consumers about the environmental costs of growing salmon in farms - in what are meant to be clean and green waters of Tasmania - is having an effect on companies, and they should be concerned.

When laws fail, when governments fail to listen, then the community will do what they can to raise awareness. One of the benefits of social media today is that people can actually see what is going on. They can understand what is happening. I think companies probably are concerned that this will force a change. I do not believe there is the push-back that there would have been five years ago to bringing on a bill of this sort.

The other factor that has changed - and one of the biggest - is that I believe the Liberal Party can no longer continue with the line that these are small homegrown Tasmanian businesses, and this is just about local jobs.

What we have now are Tasmanian salmon farm industries that are owned lock, stock and barrel by extremely large multinational companies. The fish-farm companies are owned by two of the five largest producers of salmon on the planet. JBS owns Huon Aquaculture, and they are the biggest protein producer on the planet. Cooke Canada is also a major player. Both of these companies are known, through the evidence of their activities, to be highly litigious, very capable of mounting hundreds of millions of dollars of legal costs in their defence - but they have lost a number of times in courts in the US and Canada. We see that courts often step in - in the US, which has a different system, through civil litigation and other measures, but also brought by the EPA in some US states. The Brazilian environment department have brought cases and successfully prosecuted JBS in Brazil, as has happened to JBS in the US.

Companies are being held to account - but also these companies are extremely litigious themselves. It is a completely different landscape for Tasmania. If the Labor and Liberal parties truly are concerned about growing and maintaining the industry at all, then we have to deal with the situation. There is a high risk of the industry collapsing, the way it is operating, because people in the community will not put up with it. They are not putting up with it. They are doing what they can to raise awareness in Tasmania and on the mainland about the truth of the environmental harm that is being caused through salmon farm operating.

I believe we have a government that is more aware that if we do not put some brakes on the way these businesses operate, we truly will be in a situation where we risk collapsing the industry altogether. That is not an outcome which would be of advantage in any part of regional Tasmania. That is not an outcome that a cautious and concerned government would want. It is not an outcome that the Greens would support.

We do not support regional communities being left like they have been in the United States and in Canada, where these big companies have come in, trashed the joint and then split. They do not have anything. They do not owe anything to the community. JBS owed nothing and gave nothing to King Island after they ruined Porky Creek and a situation went belly-up for them there. They walked away, and they will do it again at any time. It is not in anyone's interest in Tasmania to have weak laws.

What we have seen through the EPA, and how the current statement of expectations is written, means that the board's primary function, as outlined in the statement of expectations is to take into account, quote: 'published Tasmanian Government policies'. When the Tasmanian Government policies in relation to salmon farming, for instance, are to double the size of the salmon industry, then the minister's statement to the board makes it clear to them that the Liberal Party, the Liberal Government, is expecting the EPA board will do its job of working to double the size of the salmon industry, and needs to take that into account in their decisions when it comes to the assessment of development proposals.

The statement of expectations to the EPA at the moment says:

The board's primary function is the assessment of development of proposals. This involves the task of balancing the sometimes competing objectives which require the facilitation of economic development on the one hand, and the attainment of quite specific environmental objectives on the other.

Minister Jaensch says to the EPA board, directs them:

I expect that in the course of making such decisions of balance, the board has due regard for the social and economic circumstances prevailing in Tasmania and the objectives of the government with respect to those circumstances.

Minister Jaensch says, 'In particular, I expect the board to take account of -

Mr Jaensch - Where does minister Jaensch say this, Dr Woodruff?

Dr WOODRUFF - Well, you have signed the statement of expectations. I am reading from the most recent statement of expectations, which is on the EPA website. It has your signature at the bottom. You say:

In particular, I expect the board to take account of the need to create a more prosperous and equitable society, and this relies in large part, upon providing employment opportunities where they are most needed.

The government's policy position is that a productive community is better able to manage society's long-term environmental challenges and -

my emphasis:

I expect the board to facilitate that outcome wherever it can.

Mr Speaker, this means that any breaks in supply chains, reductions in biomass limits, placing of nitrogen caps, requirements for independent monitoring or the imposition of big farms could be construed by the minister, by the government, as impacting on productivity of business and would, according to the statement of expectations at the moment, effectively be an off limits response to environmental harm that could be chosen by the director of the EPA. They do not actually say that the director cannot say that but it is very clear from the tenor of the words and the quite clear language that the director is to use his judgment to facilitate what is beneficial to industry.

We and the community would say the job of the EPA is to look after the environment first and foremost, end of story. That is the EPA's job. Of course there is a range of things it must consider when it does that, but its fundamental principal purpose is to look after the environment and protect it from harm.

What we see through right to information and the evidence we have seen play out, for example, in Macquarie Harbour, is that this is what happens. Time and again we see the EPA facilitating and enabling the interests of business. There was a right to information request around correspondence between Tassal and the EPA and it showed there was correspondence between the director of the EPA, Wes Ford, and the CEO of Tassal, Mark Ryan, a number of letters in a one week period, a couple of weeks between October and November, in 2019.

One was in relation to a baseline environment survey that was required to be done before a marine farming lease was used off Wedge Island on the Tasman Peninsula. Mark Ryan for Tassal asked whether he could introduce fish into that marine farming lease before his company had undertaken an inshore reef survey. That survey was meant to be a baseline survey done before the fish went into the water to look at the underlying conditions and check what any changes would be against the baseline, but Mr Ford, the director of the EPA, provided a workaround that he has at his disposal. He has a swag of workarounds for companies. He wrote back asking them to write a report about it but meanwhile they could stick their fish in there while they were writing the report and undertaking this work.

This is the way things get done. Things always have a workaround involved somewhere, so that when Tassal in Macquarie Harbour had dramatically overstocked with fish and had extremely high numbers of fish deaths, over a million, in 2017, there was terrible evidence of dramatically low and zero dissolved oxygen levels at the bottom of Macquarie Harbour in early 2018 from the IMAS report. There was also evidence of World Heritage Area damage through dead zones. Over that period of two to three years, the director of the EPA did things such as overseeing the removal of the dorvilleidae worm, an indicator species that was required by the EPA as a monitoring indicator of the health of the environment under the pens at the bottom of Macquarie Harbour under the fish farm pens. They kept appearing. When dorvilleidae worms appear it is a sign of low oxygen levels and a poorly functioning benthic layer. They were appearing at regular periods under Tassal's fish farm pens at the same time as the dead zones were being reported and the zero oxygen levels were being recorded. Tassal complained about the dorvilleidae worms being used as an indicator species and so they disappeared. They were no longer required.

Mr Speaker, when you have something that is effective and the EPA is removing it, what a surprise that people in the community become very cynical about the independence of the EPA.

Despite the disaster in Macquarie Harbour, the EPA did not intervene in time. They allowed Tassal to continue to stock at high levels. Even when Wes Ford stepped in and directed Tassal to remove the fish from their pens, Tassal kept them there against the order from the EPA. It kept them there until they had grown them to the right amount and they were sold on to market. Why? Because we do not have sufficient penalties in Tasmania for it to be a proper disincentive to Tassal to continue to operate that way.

We welcome the things in this bill that go some way to making the changes that are required. We welcome the increase of public consultation in this bill. We welcome the requirement that monitoring data will be released. We welcome the attempt at properly separating the EPA from the influence of the needs and wishes of industry, and the politicians who have shackled themselves either through donations to their party, or just through a particular attitude to being overly keen to facilitate the interests of industries over looking after the environment.

It does not have to be an either/or situation. Most other countries in the world have better environmental regulations than Australia. Most other states in Australia have better environmental regulations than Tasmania. We have a number of amendments to this bill and we have drafted some of these ourselves and we have also wrested a number of the amendments from Victoria where the Labor government in 2018 passed a range of amendments to their legislation to make the EPA independent there. The minister, Lily D'Ambrosio, brought them on and they are a very good basis for the changes that we believe need to be made to strengthen this bill to protect the environment - the land environment and the marine environment - so that it is not only there for our children in the future, but it has intrinsic value in itself. It has so much value that is impossible to properly protect under this Environmental Management and Pollution Control Amendment Bill as it is.

The point I make, minister, is that this bill is not nearly enough. The problem with the bill as it is - and we agree with the Environmental Defenders Office - is that it needs a total overhaul. Environmental legislation around the country needs a total overhaul. What we are not doing in our legislation is attending to the cumulative impact of developments. We are not able, for example, to properly look at corridor effects; how we assess the impact of a development that might remove vegetation in an area which is an important corridor for species between one area and the other on either side of it. We are not able to take an ecological view in the act as it stands. We do not get to look at the impact of damaging one part of an ecosystem and understand the flow-on effects to the ecosystem as a whole.

We tend to cut and dice the landscape and make our laws to suit that, as though nature has boundaries. It does not. Birds and bees and mammals, and fish in the sea, they all move around landscapes and they are affected by the changes in nitrogen levels in water. They are affected by the loss of habitat on the land.

We strongly recommend that the minister looks at the other acts and brings them up-to-date with a modern understanding about how we need to re-vision our laws to protect the environment. We are in a biodiversity crisis. We do know that the birds, the godwits, that were identified just recently in the Mt William area in north-eastern Tasmania have had trackers on them that showed that they flew from the Arctic. It is the first time we have evidence that the Arctic species has flown without stopping to Tasmania. That is quite an extraordinary feat and it shows why the laws, as they stand, are utterly incapable of recognising the value of the environment in that particular area for a species which flies from the other side of the planet, to rest and feed, so that it can go back and continue to be part of the life cycle of the systems that it is involved with.

We can do so much better in Tasmania. We have the capacity. We are the island that has a 'clean green' brand and for a long time now people have felt that they cannot have pride in that brand - people who know about these things, most Tasmanians would not think about them. We do want to be able to have pride in our businesses. We want to have pride in what we produce. We want to be able to feel that it is not just a cynical attempt at 'green washing' for a business point of view, that it means something.

We will, in good faith, put up a number of amendments. Minister, I have put them on your desk and I have circulated them to members. I apologise for not being able to do it earlier, but it took as long as it took to get them done in order to make sure that we can have an EPA where we can all be confident, as people really want, that it stands on its own and it makes frank and fearless decisions. It is there for the environment and it challenges us to look after this place into the future, so that we have something to gift our children with a functioning environment.