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Is Environmental Compliance Really the Best Way Forward?

May 27, 2023
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There is a general perception in our community that big businesses operate outside of the oversight of the regulator, or are not scrutinised to a degree that enacts change. As Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) themes play a greater role in our businesses, is the environmental compliance framework the best tool for innovation and continual improvement?

Regulating environmental compliance in QLD: The role of DES

In QLD, environmental compliance is regulated by the Department of Environment and Science (DES). Environmental monitoring is a requirement for industrial operators who have the potential to release emissions which impact on the environment and surrounding uses.

These are listed in Schedule 2 of the Environmental Protection Regulation (EPR) 2019. Operators are obligated into this system via a list of Environmentally Relevant Activities (ERAs), that will obligate an operator to monitor for gas, groundwater, and/or surface water for emissions of contaminants of potential concern, usually on a quarterly basis. These conditions will be listed on the operators’ Environmental Authority (EA) issued by DES.

Groundwater sampling set up using a Waterra power pack.

Ensuring a cleaner future through environmental monitoring

Environmental compliance is a necessary first step for a minimum standard in which our industries can operate. There can be a perception that this exercise is a tick-box activity, however, to our more astute clients, they can use this data to improve their business practices.

For example, our regulator has a standard baseline suite of parameters to analyse for groundwater. Our proactive clients will sample and analyse for emerging contaminants not listed in their EA, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and additional hydro-geochemical parameters such as acidity, salinity, cations, anions and nutrient.

This piggyback effort on existing environmental compliance work has minimal additional cost, but will allow us to demonstrate that their industrial activities have not adversely impacted the groundwater aquifer with emerging contaminants well before the regulator asks the question.

This also makes the eventual EA closure process more straightforward, due to the long-term acquisition of hydro-geochemical data to demonstrate background groundwater conditions.

Groundwater monitoring bore.

Moving beyond tick-box compliance

When this process is treated as a tick-box exercise, the data is filed away, and the recommendations do not get actioned. A clever client will go that step further and can engage EESI to conduct trend analysis to determine if there have been notable changes to the groundwater chemistry over time. This understanding of the site may also assist in identifying any historical or offsite impacts to the groundwater.

At EESI, we tend to not offer factual data reports as a first step, as this is where the tick box-trap can occur. We encourage long-term partnerships with our clients using interpretive reports so that good quality data can be analysed over time, and valuable recommendations provided to assist and encourage environmentally and socially ethical business practices.

Enhancing business practices with solid data

Without environmental compliance, we would not have a minimum standard in which to hold our polluters to account. We are part of the system that can ensure environmental compliance suits the operator, the environment and our communities. A good set of baseline data means that with trend and hydro-geochemical analysis, EESI can work with you and the regulator to adjust the analytical suite, frequency of sampling, sampling methodology and reporting method that may tie into other reporting tools such as the National Pollutant Inventory.

EESI’s approach to driving sustainable practices

One barrier towards this goal is the lack of technical direction by our regulators. They have deferred to industry with an auditor system for technical leadership sign off, however this system does not apply to the environmental compliance space. EAs are considered outdated by at least a decade, particularly when we see references to Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPH) rather than Total Recoverable Hydrocarbons (TRH), and no references to PFAS. The administrative burden is high when EAs are treated as a tick box, however, we are compromising environmental outcomes the further we fall behind.

We at EESI can work with you so that your environmental compliance meets the minimum standard, and acts as a tool for improving business practices and managing environmental liability.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Written by EESI QLD Manager and Principal Engineer Kimberly Lam

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