Call for power to protect environment

LETTER TO THE EDITOR:

VICTORIA’S Gippsland Lakes are under serious environmental pressure.

Community enforcement where local people can discover, report, and take legal action on water quality issues is an essential tool to tackle the problem.

Recent media reports have highlighted community concerns about high levels of mercury recorded in the water and even the fish within the lakes ecosystem.

Levels of mercury are 50 to 100 times higher in places than water quality standards allow, and are highest in the western part of the lakes system and catchment, notably in Lake Wellington near Sale and the Latrobe River, which connects the region to the Latrobe Valley.

Sources of mercury entering the lakes are likely to include the power industry upstream in the Latrobe Valley and the Maryvale Pulp Mill at Traralgon (mercury is one of the byproducts of coal-fired power generation).

Concerns about mercury in the lakes go back at least to 1998, when CSIRO reported “the evidence indicates rising mercury levels in fish and sediment concentrations are approaching alarmingly high levels. Such exceedances imply a likelihood of ecosystem impacts …”.

A follow-up Fisheries Victoria study in 2012 found “total mercury concentrations in sediments from (Lake) Wellington … are high enough to pose adverse biological impacts.”

Mercury is a troubling pollution issue in the Gippsland Lakes, but there are also other water quality issues.

These are more diffuse, more difficult to manage, but just as pressing.

The EPA concluded in a ‘condition report’ on the Gippsland Lakes in 2013 that systemic environmental issues include high nutrient loads, which give rise to toxic algal blooms symptomatic of long-term failures in catchment management.

Just as disturbingly, the EPA reported that water quality standards for the lakes are outdated and they “do no allow for appropriate assessment” of environmental impacts on the lakes.

These ‘non-point source pollution’ problems are supposed to be dealt with through catchment management rules and planning.

There’s a clear solution to these water quality issues.

It is time to reform Victoria’s environment protection and catchment management laws to facilitate community enforcement of the law.

Neither the government, nor the Environment Protection Agency, has seen fit to act on the problem or establish ongoing investigations or monitoring.

These issues have been put in the too-hard basket by successive state governments, either for fear of upsetting a range of regional interests such as tourism, agriculture, the power industry and logging in the catchment; or just out of indifference and a willingness to manage crises rather than solve them.

This is safe National Party territory, so there are not a lot of political gains to be made by expending resources at this end of the state.

Public agencies charged with acting on environmental problems the EPA, the Catchment Management Authority and local councils are faced with fragmented responsibilities and insufficient resources to do the job.

That’s why we’re proposing a role for local community groups in tackling pollution.

It is time we looked at developing ‘citizen enforcement’ measures to complement Victoria’s environmental laws, so that local communities can take on the role of ‘private enforcers’, protecting the public interest where government cannot or will not.

The Environment Protection Act prohibits pollution of Victoria’s waters.

It requires polluters to comply with regulatory standards, but it often fails to take any action when these standards are breached.

If the EPA doesn’t take action, often these breaches go unpunished.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for local community groups to seek to have these rules enforced in the courts.

What we need are simplified ‘citizen enforcement’ provisions that facilitate engaged communities to have environment laws enforced in the public interest.

These types of rules have been part of the United States environmental law landscape for more than 30 years.

They have spawned a whole movement of environmental stewardship the Riverkeepers movement.

Victoria’s own planning laws contain similar provisions, which allow ‘any person’ to enforce planning permit or planning schemes through the administrative tribunal system, if councils do not.

Even in the criminal law, any citizen has the power to make a ‘citizen’s arrest’ of an offender in the course of a crime.

Similar provisions under environmental law would give real teeth to the powerful ethic of stewardship ordinary people demonstrate for the places they love, like the Gippsland Lakes.