Unauthorised discharges and inadequate storage prove costly for environmental authority holders

25 September 2018
Stafford Hopewell, Partner, Brisbane

Under the Environmental Protection Act 1994, operators of prescribed activities are required to hold environmental authorities (EA) and substantial penalties apply to a breach of an EA. As demonstrated by the following cases, the Department of Environment and Science (Department) will prosecute non-compliance and EA holders can incur significant financial costs for the failure to comply with conditions.

Unauthorised discharge from oil pipeline

The company operated an oil pipeline that transports crude oil from a facility in in Queensland to South Australia under an EA. A condition of the EA set out that contaminants must not be released to land directly or indirectly other than permitted by the EA.

In March 2016, the company notified the Department that approximately 30,000 litres of crude oil had been released from the pipeline to land. In July 2016, the company again notified the Department that approximately 60,000 litres of crude oil had been released from the pipeline to land.

The cause of both incidents were identified by the company as being a defect in the structural inner layer of the pipeline which became a point of weakness resulting in a failure of the pipeline at each location.

The company pleaded guilty to proceedings commenced by the Department and at the sentence hearing, the Court ordered the company to pay a fine of $68,000 as well as the Department’s legal and investigation costs of around $3,851.

In determining the appropriate penalty to award, the Court took into account the early guilty plea, the cooperation by the company with the Department during the investigation and the action that the company had taken to rehabilitate the land.

The case also highlights that non-compliance may be prosecuted and significant penalties imposed even where no actual environmental harm is caused by the non-compliance.

Uncontrolled release from sugar mill

The company operated a sugar mill in Central Queensland under an EA. A condition of the EA limited circumstances in which effluent water could be released from the site.

In August 2016, the company became aware of an uncontrolled discharge of effluent water into a nearby creek which exceeded the specified release limits of compounds permitted under the EA.

An investigation was undertaken by the Department where it was found that there were four instances of fish kills at downstream sites and the contaminated water found in the creek system was consistent with the contamination present in the uncontrolled discharge of effluent water.

The company pleaded guilty to proceedings commenced by the Department and at the sentence hearing, the Court ordered the company to pay a fine of $160,000 for one offence of causing serious environmental harm and one offence of contravening a condition of the EA. The Court also ordered the company to pay the Department’s legal and investigation costs of $4,260.

In determining the appropriate penalty award, the Court took into account the early guilty plea, the cooperation by the company with the Department and that the company had not acted wilfully.

The Court however noted that the release should not have happened and was an unacceptable breach of the company’s environmental responsibilities.

Inadequate storage of liquid waste

The company operated a waste receiving facility in Yatala under an EA. The EA provided for conditions under which the receipt of liquid waste could be accepted.

In August 2016, the Department undertook an investigation which revealed that the waste receipt area on the site was not roofed or equipped with an odour and gas extraction system. A number of other breaches of the conditions of the EA were observed during a further investigation in March 2017, in that the waste receipt area was still not equipped with an odour and gas extraction system and a bund had not been installed to contain spills.

The company pleaded guilty to proceedings commenced by the Department and at the sentence hearing, the Court determined to fine the company an amount of $12,000 for two offences of contravening a condition of the EA. The Court ordered the company to pay the Department’s legal and investigation costs of $10,564.

In determining the appropriate penalty award, the Court took into account the early guilty plea, the cooperation by the company with the Department and that there was a low risk of environmental harm occurring on the site if a spill were to occur.

Key takeaway

It is an offence under section 430 of the Environmental Protection Act 1994 for a person to contravene a condition of an EA, wilfully or otherwise. The maximum penalty for wilfully contravening a condition of an EA is 6,250 penalty units which is more than $4,000,000 for a corporation and $800,000 or five years imprisonment for an individual.

These three recent prosecutions are an important reminder to companies holding EAs that the Department takes breaches of environmental obligations seriously.


Authored by: 
Stafford Hopewell, Partner
Sarah Day, Associate

This update does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. It is intended only to provide a summary and general overview on matters of interest and it is not intended to be comprehensive. You should seek legal or other professional advice before acting or relying on any of the content.

Get in touch