Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority has sat on its hands and refused to prosecute companies and councils in flagrant breach of the state’s environmental laws, a groundbreaking study has revealed.

The environmental vandalism — which includes incidences of infected wastewater spewing across property boundaries — is being committed on an almost daily basis by hundreds of separate councils and corporations comforted by an under-resourced government regulator content to turn a blind eye.

The data, dredged up by a tenacious band of Monash University investigative journalism students under the watch of former Age kingpin Bill Birnbauer, and published on trailblazing university site Dangerous Ground overnight, paints a disturbing picture of a regulatory regime close to collapse as Melbourne’s natural environment turns an icky shade of brown.

Of the 361 Annual Performance Reports examined by the Monash students, more than half contained evidence of a breach of the licence conditions imposed on them by the EPA. Each of those reports contained an average of two breaches. (The reports are required to be submitted by the bodies under their licenses.)

Tips and landfills owned by city councils were some of the worst offenders, with eight municipal bodies recording six or more breaches, and 60 breaches overall. Astoundingly, the students found that one in every six license conditions imposed by the EPA was breached. Some of the offences are grave. They include groundwater and stormwater contamination, and the discharge of plumes of pollution and asbestos.

The state’s most poisonous tip — the Regional Landfill Clayton South Joint Venture — recorded 12 breaches. Another hotspot is the south-west coast town of Warrnambool. The students found that compliance rates were just 56% at Midfield Co-Products, which transforms unwanted slaughterhouse material into tasty byproducts like “tallow, Meat and Bone Meal or Blood Meal”, and 55% at the nearby Warrnambool Cheese And Butter Factory.

Disturbingly, bigger corporates with concerning environmental records like Alcoa, Esso, Shell and Mobil — and power stations at Hazelwood, Yallourn and Loy Yang — failed to submit performance statements because, according to an EPA spokesperson, their licences were in the process of being “reformed”.

But the EPA’s almost total lack of action would appear to make a mockery of the enforcement regime. The students found that the agency launched just six prosecutions against companies for violations in 2010-2011 and four prosecutions the year before. Last year, Baillieu government Environment Minister Ryan Smith (whose media adviser Emily Broadbent ignored calls) oversaw a shift to light-touch regulation that “supported” licensees to comply with conditions, rather than prioritising legal action to ping the offenders.

The EPA says its licenses are posted on its website, but the study found that close to a third of these were not available. And in a further insult to residents, licensees actually monitor their own activity — suggesting that the real frequency of illegal actions is substantially higher than the 383 offenses reported under the regime.

At this notorious landfill blackspot in Bulla — metres from homes and close to Melbourne Airport — the EPA found that detritus was “was not covered or contained sufficiently to prevent the release of asbestos fibres to air”. But the regulator failed to call in the lawyers, instead telling the operator BTQ Group to cover up the deadly fibres and develop a waste plan.

A Dangerous Ground spinoff story reveals in devastating detail a breakdown in communication, and culture of buckpassing, between the EPA, WorkSafe and local governments. The consequences of a lack of coordination can be damaging — the October 2009 Ombudsman report into methane emissions near the Brookland Greens housing estate in Cranbourne was front page news and led 6pm commercial news bulletins.

An EPA spokesperson told Crikey this morning that:

“the APS is a mandatory self-reporting tool for licensed sites, a public declaration by companies of their performance in a year. In instances where the breach of licence is minor, such as administrative error, enforcement action will not be taken. If EPA detects misleading information in a statement or there is risk of widespread environmental damage — EPA may use statutory tools such as remedial notices to remedy non-compliance or likely non-compliance with the EP Act 1970. Significant penalties exist, including jail, for executives providing false or misleading information on their APS.”

Birnbauer’s progeny have spent months probing the shortcomings of the regulator through a forensic analysis of hundreds of publicly-available reports stripped from the web. It is the sort of resource-intensive group work increasingly avoided by stressed hacks on the metro dailies, who prefer to feed off drips provided by PR agencies or self-styled political “insiders” hell-bent on their own personal advancement.

Important Age investigations by guns like Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker sink without a trace just hours after they hit the streets — in previous decades they would have dominated the national debate. Sites like Dangerous Ground represent an attempt to inject resources back into serious muckraking.

Birnbauer’s Monash stable also includes online publication Glen Eira Voice boasting “150 reporters covering the City of Glen Eira” — about 147 more reporters than on the local News Limited-owned Caulfield Glen Eira Leader. Stories include this interesting yarn on “Glen Eira’s busiest back streets” — it’s Queens Avenue in Caulfield East near the racecourse.

Peter Fray

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