The general environmental duty requires "a person who is engaging in an activity that may give rise to risks of harm to human health or the environment from pollution or waste must minimise those risks, so far as reasonably practicable". The general environmental duty will be supported by the introduction of numerous tools EPA can use to provide guidance and support for compliance.
The general duty approach to environment protection is adaptable. It can be readily tailored to suit various activities, from low-risk through to the most complex and high-risk industrial processes. The systems required to meet the general duty are scalable and proportionate to the nature of the risks.
Low-risk businesses will meet the obligations with very simple staff training and common sense. Large and high-risk businesses will have very sophisticated risk management systems that are under constant review and development.
Any business that is doing its due diligence to understand and manage business risks already does this across the spectrum of risks. In some ways, all the general duty does is confirm that common-sense business practice meets the expectation for how environmental risks are managed.
Business has welcomed the general duty approach because it will support better integration of health, safety and environment within their business. The general duty approach also gives businesses that are doing the right thing greater confidence that EPA will be ab le to bring into line those who are getting away with poor practices.
Low risk activity (for example small retail business, such as convenience stores)
For most businesses, meeting the general environmental duty would mean ensuring appropriate waste removal services are used, sites are kept clean, and rubbish is kept out of stormwater drains. Businesses that do not have polluting activities, or only produce minimal domestic-type wastes like cardboard, or other objects that go in normal bins, are unlikely to have any significant new requirements.
Medium risk activity (such as petrol stations)
Leaks of petroleum from an underground petroleum storage system (UPSS) can contaminate the soil, groundwater, surface water and air. Owners can be exposed to costs for cleanup and damages. EPA's guidelines for UPSS (publication 1670) are already consistent with a general environmental duty approach, identifying action in five areas to prevent harm:
- management system in place
- leak prevention measures
- leak detection measures
- leak or spill response procedures
- UPSS removal and decommissioning standards
- the need for businesses to understand the compliance requirements and ensure compliance.
Large industrial facility (for example and oil refinery)
For higher-risk businesses, most are already adopting measures to control hazards and risks to human health and the environment in line with the general environmental duty. The duty supports these businesses by raising the standard of lower performers.
Major industries are currently likely to work directly with EPA and within the context of the occupational health and safety general duty. Under a general environmental duty, EPA would create codes and guidance of its expectations and outline industry obligations.
Where a large industrial facility does not already incorporate environmental risks into their systems, it would need to identify environmental hazards.
The general duty:
- Clarifies that anyone conducting an activity that poses risks to human health and the environment from pollution and waste has an obligation to understand and manage those risks.
- Provides EPA with a more effective tool for dealing with poor industry practices and drive investment in preventative measures that eliminate or reduce impacts on the community and the environment.
This will be a major change in the way we protect the environment as it requires businesses to be proactive in identifying and implementing practicable risk management measures to reduce the impacts of pollution and waste. It also empowers EPA to be proactive by supporting businesses to prevent harm, rather than remedying harm after the damage has occurred.