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Present at the interview:

Matt Vincent: EPA director (MV)
Ruth Ward: EPA media advisor (RW)
Kaymolly Morrelle: reporter for Dangerous Ground, Monash University (KM)
and Zoe Taylor-Lynch: reporter for Dangerous Ground, Monash University

KM: Do you find that there is much attention to workers’ occupational health and safety in relation to your notices and clean up?

MV: Our experience is that it is quite rare that contaminated site issues would be necessarily posing a day-to-day immediate risk to workers but certainly where there’s any suspicion that that would be the case, we would work with WorkSafe to resolve those issues.

KM: What does the EPA consider is the most dangerous risk to human and environmental health from land or water that is contaminated by service stations currently operating?

MV: Look, I think the key risk there would be where there’s a residential development, if there are any potential vapours from contaminated ground water, so if you had a contained area, say a basement or a garage and there was any vapour seepage from a petrol station site that would pose a risk. Often when they’ve remediated the site, if there is any potential risk that’s opened up, they put some kind of vapour barrier there to make sure that doesn’t occur.

KM:    So, do you mean a risk of, for example, breathing the vapours–

MV: That’s right.

KM: …or explosion?

MV: No, long term breathing, and impacts from breathing that over time.

KM: As far as I’ve read… BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) can be quite carcinogenic, although some of them are found in things like cigarette smoke, they certainly have a detrimental effect and must be therefore a large part of what the EPA is meant to be protecting us from?

MV: Absolutely. I mean, where there are either immediate or long-term effects from exposure, absolutely, that’s what we regulate. And so, often, with those residential developments, after they’ve remediated, they will put in some kind of vapour barrier.

KM: When it comes to aquatic life, for instance when it’s water table and streams, which are being affected, what other departments do you get involved with?

MV: Look our role as a regulator is to protect the environment … if there is groundwater potentially moving towards another water body, then absolutely that is something that we would look at. In terms of involving other agencies, often when an auditor would be doing a risk assessment, a risk of harm, etc, if there was another organisation, for example Parks Victoria, that was responsible for that water body, or one of the water authorities etc., they would either talk to us or talk to them and notify them of the risk as well  and get them involved.

KM: Moving to the case of service station operators: they’re sitting there and they receive a knock on the door, some sort of communication from EPA and suddenly there’s an enormous crisis on their hands—I’m thinking of a case where they maybe didn’t know they had a problem and it was perhaps a third party who notified the EPA. What consideration of interruption and cost to businesses does the EPA have when issuing clean up or pollution abatement notices?

MV: Look there are cases where, for example, a plume that is travelling off another site and is detected somewhere else, and we’ll often approach that business and say, ‘OK, there is a strong suspicion here that you have contamination coming off your site and this is what’s required’, and normally that takes the form of some kind of investigation. So, it would be very, very, very rare that that would be something that results in an immediate need to completely shut down a business. It might be a change of practice or it might be a quick investigation into what is the source of that, etc., but, make no mistake, at the end of the day, if there is a threat that represents a serious threat to the environment, we would not hesitate in shutting that business down or taking whatever action is necessary to stop the pollution.

KM: Which in itself must be a very good deterrent, because entry and exit barriers for the retail fuel industry are quite high and capital costs are high; clean up of contaminated land must be enormously expensive. So one would hope that all of that put together, plus your ability to say, “That’s it. Stop operating”…

MV: Yes. And look, you know, in terms of particularly developments, you know you probably wouldn’t have to go too far to find developers that would say they’ve been put out of business effectively because of the strict requirements put on them by the EPA. At the end of the day you can’t compromise when you’re talking about protecting the health of the community and you know, in really all cases, what needs to be done, needs to be done.

KM: So it’s very much a bottom line—high noon this is it? If they are resistant, I mean?

MV: Well, look, I think you really need to be fair and reasonable in the sense of you’ve really got to weigh up what is the true risk; what is the capacity of this business or industry to meet certain time frames, to get things done? And so you know there’s always a discussion to be had, but at the end of the day, we can’t compromise health and we can’t compromise the health of the environment.

KM: One of the sites (at Dandenong South) that I’m looking at has been over 10 years on the Priority Sites Register and I don’t know whether it’s fully or partially decommissioned, but there is certainly no above ground building on the site now. When something has been partially decommissioned and perhaps certain things have been met but there are ongoing things…is it possible that a site could just remain on the register and never really get off it?

RW: There are some sites, landfills in particular, that have ongoing monitoring requirements. They could be on there for 30 years. It just depends on the specific site and what the requirements are, and that’s about making sure that, in the case of a landfill, it does not have any ongoing issues. So there might be management requirements, but certainly there would be monitoring requirements, for 20 or 30 years.

MV: If you look at a former petrol station, for example, which is very likely to be contaminated no matter what they’ve done, provided that site is not being used, and there’s not a plume of petrol that’s contaminated the ground moving off, it’s probably quite reasonable and it is safe to leave it there in some kind of suspended animation. And really it’s the market forces that will drive the clean up ultimately, that land will become valuable enough for someone to invest in cleaning up. Now, part of what I’m going to be talking about in the next 12 months is trying to identify where are all the sites that we don’t know about? There’s the Priority Sites Register that has some 250 on it, but then there are all these other sites that probably aren’t sitting on the register. So we want to understand where they all are and then the next phase of that will be What is the plan? You know: what is the big picture plan to get these sites cleaned up?

KM: You would need an army to go round the petrol stations in Australia, not just Victoria, but Australia—I believe there are over 3000 petrol stations in the country. There must be an enormous number in Victoria that haven’t come to your attention. Are the funds going to be there? Is there going to be the goodwill for the funds to be given to the EPA to handle that sort of task?

MV: We’ve, through our transformation, been very clear about three key things we are going to do. One, is we’re going to look at past pollution. So we’re going to actually focus on all of those things that happened previously that haven’t been dealt with.

Two, deal with the issues of today. So, making sure we don’t actually end up with any more of those legacy issues. And then thirdly, look to the future and what we need to do in terms of regulation. So we’re really clear about those three priorities and aligning our resources to make them. So we are confident we can do that.

KM: No (public) notices seem to be posted on the sites or the perimeters of  the sites I’ve visited. Is that because I just happened to have picked four that didn’t have notices, or is it not required?

RW: There’s no requirement.

MV: No, there’s no requirement to put something up. However, what I will say is that, over time, as part of being more transparent, we intend to start to put more and more information up on the website about these individual sites, so that the community can see where are all the contaminated sites and what is the current status of what is happening with that site.

But, look, we would only insist that signs went up on a site if we deemed that there was a significant risk to human health in terms of people interacting– or being near that site. So for example if there was asbestos on a site that was fenced off and we were concerned about people being in close proximity, we would make sure that there were signs plastered all over it. But, you know, if it’s under the ground and there’s not vapours coming up that are going to cause an issue for people, it’s not necessary–in fact it would probably just cause more concern from the community than is actually necessary.

KM: Sort of like sticking a stick in a hornet’s nest, in a sense?

MV:  Well I think that what our experience shows is that if the community is only given partial information, it can actually lead to a lot of unnecessary fear, and, you know, that fear, in some cases, in extreme cases, can actually have health impacts of its own: people living with that stress. So, really, you’ve either got to make a call to say ‘Hey, look, it’s not a risk, let’s not be too worried about plastering signs all over that’. Or, take the opposite, which is go out there and really talk to the community.

KM:   You’d have to make a call on each site, I imagine?

MV: Yeah.

KM: It would be site specific and community specific?

RW: And sometimes people specific. So you might only talk to a handful of people who are directly impacted, rather than a broader community.

KM: Looking at the various jurisdictions, all the states and territories, what do you see as a major anomaly or a glaring anomaly between the states’ regulations or legislation on environmental protection? What do you think is the area theyneed to first focus on?

MV: I think the message we get is you have a lot of businesses that are working across multiple jurisdictions and in actual fact, for them, I think it is more about they struggle to navigate through those differences and so I think they get a bit confused about what’s required in each different part of the country. So really I think it is about if you can get a uniform system that just gives one set of guidelines, one sort of single point of truth, if you like, that would actually reduce the confusion and probably get a lot more consistency in terms of compliance. So I think that’s the key focus.

KM: Is there any particular body working on that kind of uniform approach?

MV: There is a network of regulators who are looking at this very thing.

KM: …In the United States, the EPA there is concerned about, and is doing research into, the storage of bio-fuels in petrol station type storage. They’ve seen accelerated corrosion in the sumps underground and they’re looking into how they are going to handle that with more and more storing of ethanol blends. Are you aware of anything to do with that in the Australian or Victorian context?

MV: I’m not personally aware of that but what I can say is that we have a number of experts across the EPA and part of their role is to keep up to date on the latest developments around the world and so I’d be very surprised if we didn’t have someone watching it. In fact, over the next six to 12 months we’ll be really embedding that expertise in terms of appointing people into specific expertise roles to do exactly that.

KM: What sort of contact does the EPA have with peak bodies like the Australian Institute of Petroleum or other peak petroleum industry bodies on an ongoing regular basis? Is there a close relationship with the umbrella organisations in relation to petro-storage… ?

MV: Look, we tend to work with organisations such as the Australian Industry Group that represent a broad set of industry rather than specific ones, but we do deal a lot with the petrol companies themselves and the big players in the petrochemical industry individually on a one-to-one basis. And just at the moment we’re going through a process of looking at what are the key relationships we need to have. So, that’s part of the transformation that I talked about. It may well be that we need to engage with them.

KM: One last question: Stan Krpan’s review (of the EPA) has … 119 recommendations. That’s a lot to handle for one organisation, I’m sure. Have you prioritised those…?

MV: So we’ve got the 119 from Stan Krpan, plus the Ombudsman’s, plus (Victorian Auditor-General’s report) so we have a whole suite of these recommendations which are built into this transformation plan. So we have very clear timelines and accountabilities around who is doing what recommendation and by when. And that will take us probably around three years to implement 119 recommendations and I think we’ve implemented something like 30 already. We’re trying to do it as quickly as possible, but it’s not a tick the box exercise for us; it actually has got to get the result and the intent needs to have been met, so it’s not about rushing them through …

See also:

*The transcript of this interview is slightly edited. The interview took place at Monash University’s Caulfield campus in Semester 2, 2011.   © ksmorrelle 2012

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This work by Kaymolly S. Morrelle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.