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Contamination and remediation simplified: National Remediation Framework launched

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This article was written by Mark BeaufoyMatthew Austin and Perry Singleton.

The National Remediation Framework (NRF), launched on 3 June 2020, is set to provide regulators, site contamination assessors and remediation practitioners with quick access to best-practice remediation methods. Promising cost efficiencies for businesses, up to date guidance and greater national consistency in approaching remediation events, the NRF alongside existing guidance documents, completes a suite of nationally harmonised guidance for the assessment, management and remediation of contamination.[1]

Origins and Purpose of the NRF

The NRF was motivated in part by stakeholder feedback during an update to the National Environment Protection (Assessment of Site Contamination) Measure (ASC NEPM). The ASC NEPM was created under the National Environment Protection Council Acts,[2] and an update in 2013 saw stakeholders across Australia express the need for development of a national guide to contamination remediation and management too.

Development was led by the Co-operative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) with the goal of providing a 'nationally harmonised approach to the remediation and management of contaminated sites in Australia'.[3]

The NRF complements the ASC NEPM, which establishes a nationally consistent approach to the assessment of site contamination.[4] Together, the NRF and ASC NEPM provide comprehensive guidance through the life of a contamination event from assessment to remediation.[5]

How to use the NRF

The NRF includes 24 topic-specific guidelines relevant to different stages of soil and groundwater remediation, including establishing remediation objectives, performing cost-benefit and sustainability analysis, selection of appropriate remediation technology and implementing long-term monitoring.

Various technology guides have also been prepared to assist contaminated land advisers to select the most appropriate technologies to address remediation problems. Topics covered include bioremediation, containment, excavation, skimming, and thermal desorption.

The NRF is structured around 3 key stages in the remediation process:

  1. Remediation Action Plan development;
  2. Remediation Action Plan implementation; and
  3. Post-remediation considerations.

Multiple guidance documents are provided for each stage. This modular construction and the non-statutory nature of the NRF is designed to enable reviews or updates to each standalone document to be easily achieved as required.

The National Remediation Framework flowchart also provides a visual guide to these stages and the relevant accompanying NRF chapters.

Although the NRF was endorsed in November 2019 by Australia's Heads of EPA Forum as representing 'best practice' in the industry, State and Territory regulators are yet to announce the enabling mechanisms for the NRF's adoption.[6]

The NRF in practice

The NRF is intended to provide a uniform national resource to promote consistency in remediation processes and actions. The NRF could provide:

  • A framework for use in a range of contracts, enabling parties to agree on a structure or decision-making process for their remediation event without the need to exhaustively define it in the agreement; 
  • A set of considerations relevant to statutory approvals, such as remediation plans, providing both regulators and applicants with a central resource of decision-making processes and endorsed practices;
  • Cost and time efficiencies for organisations involved in land remediation. Companies will benefit from the NRF's description of the stages of remediation, its high-level overview of regulatory requirements in each state, and can use the NRF as a point of reference to ensure their remediation projects are approached consistently nation-wide; and
  • A nationally consistent understanding of remediation practices.

Limitations of the NRF

The NRF is a non-statutory guidance document and cannot be relied on in isolation. It will assist with remediation decision-making processes however it will not supersede regulatory requirements.

The NRF provides an overarching approach to the remediation of contamination generally, however several specific contamination scenarios are excluded. Advice on unexploded ordinance, radioactive substances, biologically pathogenic materials, contaminated sediments and abandoned mine sites is specifically excluded from the NRF[7] as these are understood to require specialised forms of remediation and management.

At present, the NRF does not provide guidance related to specific contaminants. In its place, the NRF provides a 'toolbox' with links to external documents and reports which can assist practitioners with more targeted guidance on these matters but which is not technically part of the framework.

The NRF will need to be updated over time to reflect developments in land remediation approaches and technologies, and relevant changes to local laws. For example, because the NRF was drafted at the same time as Victoria's substantial environmental reforms were being developed (see related article) the framework's chapter on regulatory considerations notes that it 'contains limited guidance for Victoria'.[8]

Next Steps

The support that the NRF has received from regulators and industry in Australia is encouraging. Its ability to work alongside the ASC NEPM to provide industry with guidance through the full life of a contamination scenario and its potential to provide efficiencies and improvements in land remediation is significant. Endorsed by the heads of Australia's environmental regulators and supported by key industry stakeholders, the NRF has significant potential to assist in and streamline future contaminated land events and remediation scenarios.

If you have any questions about the NRF or how it may affect your business or project, please contact Mark Beaufoy or Matthew Austin.

 


[1] Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment ('CRC CARE'), 'National Remediation Framework: Introduction', National Remediation Framework (August 2019) 4 <https://remediationframework.com.au/download-nrf-guidelines/1-nrf-intro/file>.

[2] See also, National Environment Protection Council Act 1994 (Cth).

[3] CRC CARE, 'About', National Remediation Framework (2020) <https://www.remediationframework.com.au/about/what-is-the-nrf>.

[4] CRC CARE, 'National Remediation Framework Overview', National Remediation Framework (2020) <https://www.remediationframework.com.au/>.

[5] Ibid.

[6] CRC CARE, 'National Remediation Framework: Introduction', National Remediation Framework (August 2019) 4 <https://remediationframework.com.au/download-nrf-guidelines/1-nrf-intro/file>.

[7] CRC CARE, 'National Remediation Framework: Introduction', National Remediation Framework (August 2019) 4 <https://remediationframework.com.au/download-nrf-guidelines/1-nrf-intro/file>.

[8] CRC CARE, 'Remediation Action Plan Development: Guideline on regulatory considerations', National Remediation Framework (August 2019) 1, <https://remediationframework.com.au/download-nrf-guidelines/4-guideline-on-regulatory-considerations/file> 1.

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