House of Representatives Committees

Environmental Management of Commonwealth Land


The Need for a Commonwealth Contaminated Sites Policy Framework

3.1 The Committee's review of the audit report raises important questions about the relationship between the Commonwealth and the States and their cooperation on environmental issues. In particular, it has attracted comment on the question of Commonwealth compliance with State, Territory and local government environment protection laws and regulations. These matters are fundamental to the development of a coordinated approach to environmental management by Commonwealth agencies, and the Committee notes that steps are being taken to resolve some of the questions. The Intergovernmental Committee on Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Group on Commonwealth-State roles and responsibilities (Intergovernmental Working Group) will deal with these matters in a more comprehensive and authoritative way than is possible for the Committee in examining the audit report. The Committee would need to conduct a full inquiry and go well beyond the scope of the matters raised in the audit report before it could comment on these issues. Such an inquiry would be inappropriate at this time given the current work of the Intergovernmental Working Group.

3.2 The resolution of questions about Commonwealth-State relations on environmental matters will not entirely obviate the need for a Commonwealth policy framework. The Commonwealth may find itself in a position where it has to develop mechanisms to coordinate its efforts to ensure compliance with undertakings to the States and Territories. In any event, the question of Commonwealth-State cooperation is still under consideration, and the Commonwealth should not ignore its current responsibilities while waiting for the broader issues to be resolved by the Intergovernmental Working Group.

3.3 The generally favourable response to the audit report and apparent willingness of Commonwealth land management authorities to implement the ANAO's recommendation to develop a Commonwealth policy might also be seen as limiting the need for the Committee to comment further. However, the expressed inability of Environment Australia to develop the policy framework proposed by the ANAO is a serious concern. The Committee believes that Environment Australia should reassess its priorities, particularly in the light of the strong support for the audit findings expressed by the Commonwealth agencies that were audited and by State and Territory Governments.

3.4 The need for Environment Australia to take action of the type envisaged by the ANAO is not alleviated by the possible activities of the National Environment Protection Council (NEPC). The NEPC's work should complement a Commonwealth policy framework, and not be seen as an alternative to it. Likewise, the Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for the Assessment and Management of Contaminated Sites and the ISO 14000 series do not provide mechanisms for the development of environmental management systems with consistent standards.

3.5 Although the exact number of contaminated sites is unknown, the Commonwealth could find itself responsible for large areas of land contaminated by past and current land use activities. In these circumstances, a coordinated approach to the environmental management of Commonwealth land would contribute to protecting the asset value of land where contamination may be found, and minimise the environmental and public health effects of any contamination.

3.6 A national policy would assist in achieving similar priorities across different agencies and jurisdictions. Departments require a best practice policy for oversighting and providing information to GBEs, which in turn require a best practice policy to monitor their own environmental management performance. A consistent national approach should facilitate cooperation and coordination in the management of contaminated sites and in confirming liability arrangements for remediation. The national approach should provide for an increased effort by land managers to detect contamination and to disclose information about contaminated sites, especially to potential land owners. The national policy should focus on avoiding pollution in the first instance, as well as managing contamination once it has occurred.

3.7 The Committee concludes that a Commonwealth policy on the environmental management of Commonwealth land is needed, in particular for contaminated sites and pollution prevention. The absence of a clear Commonwealth policy framework is a major constraint on departments and management entities seeking to establish priorities and actions in line with best current practice. Mechanisms for making available information about possible contamination to future land owners is also important.

3.8 Environment Australia is in a good position to develop a national policy due to its previous work on the management of contaminated sites. A single agency approach is required in order to limit the possibility of duplication of effort and the Committee considers that Environment Australia has a crucial role to play in the development and coordination of a Commonwealth policy. Given reductions in its budget, an assessment by the Commonwealth Government as to whether Environment Australia has adequate resources to develop this national policy will be required.

3.9 Once a report is available from the Intergovernmental Working Group, Environment Australia should reassess its role in the development of policy on contaminated sites and pollution prevention. Environment Australia is the appropriate organisation to take the lead in implementing the Commonwealth's response to the Intergovernmental Working Group's findings.

3.10 The Committee concludes that a coordinated Commonwealth strategy for the environmental management of contaminated sites is required. The Committee recommends:

The Response to the Unexploded Ordnance Problem

3.11 The uncertainty about the extent of UXO contamination and the consequent dilemma over appropriate land use necessitate urgent development of Defence's assessment process. The States emphasised the need for more resources to be allocated to assessing possible UXO contamination sites. This is a particularly pressing need considering the large area of land that cannot be used and the risk of injury to the public until appropriate assessments are completed.

3.12 The ANAO conducted an audit into Defence management of contaminated land in 1986 and found that the full extent of UXO contamination and its risks had not been fully assessed by Defence. Since then only two site assessments have been completed by Defence. With 403 suspected contaminated sites in Queensland and 1070 across the country, further resources are needed to identify and assess UXO contaminated sites. Given the findings of the ANAO in 1986, the Committee is disappointed that Defence has not carried out more assessments.

3.13 Although the proposal by Defence to develop a national approach to the management of information to assist in the assessment process is a move in the right direction, further resources are needed to implement an adequate program of site assessments. The Committee concludes that assigning one full-time officer to assess UXO contamination in Queensland is hopelessly inadequate. The Committee recommends:


Back to top