COVID-19 delays new Victorian Environment Protection Act

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This article was written by Mark Beaufoy, Michael Ashforth and Bridget Phelan.

Victoria is in the process of implementing a 'once in a generation' overhaul of its environmental laws, moving to a duty-based system of environmental management.

See our earlier updates on these reforms. The Environment Protection Amendment Act 2018 was due to commence on 1 July 2020[1], however the EPA has confirmed that the commencement date will be delayed until 1 July 2021.[2]

The Victorian Government announced yesterday that it intends to introduce legislation to the Parliament this Thursday, 23 April, to support businesses and workers in direct response to the current circumstances arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.[3] The COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020. Among its measures, the Bill will delay the commencement of the environment protection reforms until 1 July 2021 (or earlier by proclamation) to allow business and industry to focus on the immediate impacts of coronavirus.

Planning, Local Government changes

The Premier's media release states that the Bill will also respond to some of the challenges of physical distancing measures allowing planning permits to be displayed and sent electronically and enabling planning panels to conduct hearings by video-conference or in other remote ways. The Bill also amends the Local Government Act to allow virtual meetings for local councils. There is no mention of emergency planning approvals similar to the powers introduced in NSW. We will need to see the detail of the Bill, but it may have been considered that the Planning Minister's powers of intervention in planning scheme amendment and planning permits under the existing provisions of the Planning and Environment Act 1987 are sufficient.

Regulation, Standards pushed back

The EPA has stated that it will provide more detailed information to its stakeholders following the parliamentary sitting on Thursday.

Supporting the implementation of the new Act, exposure drafts of the Environment Protection Regulations and Environmental Reference Standards were released for public comment between 2 September - 31 October 2019. These were expected to be finalised in April or May 2020. It is anticipated that the finalisation of the Regulations and ERS will now be delayed.

There have been a number of other policies and guidelines released by EPA in draft in relation to the new duties, powers and requirements under the new Act. Finalisation of these policies and guidelines may also be delayed.

On 18 December 2019 the EPA released:

On 30 March 2020 the EPA released the following guidance on operating licences:

On 3 April 2020, in conjunction with the EPA, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) released draft exposure amendments to the Victorian Planning Provisions and associated Ministerial Direction and Practice Note dealing with potentially contaminated land. Submissions on the proposed changes, which can be provided via Engage Victoria, were to be made until 5 May 2020. The EPA has stated that the project timelines will be reviewed, and the public consultation period is expected to be extended.

In the midst of business dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic impact, this will be a welcome relief. The delay provides business with more time to prepare for the commencement of the new legislation, including understanding the new duty-based regime and the associated policies and guidelines, reviewing and updating risk assessments and environmental management procedures and systems, training staff and briefing management or the Board EHS or Risk Committee. While 1 July 2021 looks like it will be the new commencement date, if we get through this COVID-19 crisis more quickly, that date could be bought forward.

We will be publishing a further update shortly on the details of the planning and environment aspects of the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020 and the new EPA policies and guidelines referred to above and proposed amendments to the PCL planning framework.

In the meantime, if you have any questions, please contact Mark Beaufoy.

[1] Victorian Government Gazette, No. S 104 Tuesday 3 March 2020. The Environment Protection Amendment Act 2018 will repeal the current Environment Protection Act 1970 and be consolidated into the existing Environment Protection Act 2017.

[2] Email from EPA Reforms dated 21 April 2020.


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