Lawyers from Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) and community groups have urged the Victorian government to immediately revoke its delay of the state’s Environment Protection Amendment Act 2018, due to come into force on July 1 this year, but placed on hold potentially until December 2021.
Understandably, enactment of the Act was deferred by the Andrews government in April “to ease the burden on business and industry as they address the impacts of coronavirus on their business.”
However, the lobby groups have pointed to toxic fires at industrial waste plants which have polluted communities at Altona North, Campellfield and Thomastown, over the past five weeks. Meanwhile, rural regions remain exposed to dangerous levels of pollution from coal fired power stations whose toxic emission limits are far above those allowed in other countries.
New Act will improve air quality
According to the report Toxic and Terminal from EJA, air pollution is responsible for hundreds of thousands of asthma cases and premature deaths each year in Australia. By overhauling existing regulation, they claim that the new Act would help improve air quality and give legal recourse to Victorian communities currently exposed to toxic pollution.
“Environmental disasters don’t stop for COVID so the legislation shouldn’t either. We have waited far too long for the new EP Act as generations of Victorians have paid with their health,” EJA co-CEO, Nicola Rivers said.
“No one’s health should be put at risk from preventable pollution. Were the EP Act in force by July as promised, it may have helped prevent recent toxic pollution events at waste management plants in Altona North, Campellfield and Thomastown. At the very least, these communities may have had legal recourse against these industrial polluters,” she added.
According to Rivers, current state and national air pollution regulation is not strong enough to protect many Victorians’ health. Pollution standards exceed the World Health Organization’s recommended thresholds and lag significantly behind most other countries, including the US, the EU, and China
“Victoria’s residents are being ordered to stay home during the pandemic, but many residents are not retreating to safety — they’re retreating to toxicity.
“We don’t yet understand the full implications of recent studies suggesting links between high levels of pollution and increased risks from COVID-19, but it’s clear the virus and the regulatory responses impact disadvantaged communities that tend to be around polluting facilities.
“Decades of environmental health disparities have contributed to these communities’ underlying health conditions that health experts are warning contribute to COVID-19 fatalities.
“Often these communities don’t have strong legal capacity to prevent pollution, so the government needs to step up. Instead of protecting polluting industries, it needs to protect the most vulnerable Victorians,” Rivers said.
Matter of urgency
Anti-Toxic Waste Alliance (A-TWA) chair, Sue Vittori added that “The government needs to stop stalling and prioritise bringing in the new EP Act as a matter of urgency. At a time when Victorians are under duress from the effects COVID-19 is having on our lives, the continual succession of waste-related fires only serve to further undermine people’s sense of safety and wellbeing.
“With the strong new powers promised to the EPA being delayed by more than a year, our communities have no confidence in the State Government to ensure their safety or protection from a continuing waste and chemical fires.
“A-TWA has made repeated calls and representation to the government that they must prioritise protecting the wider community’s interests over business interests.
“A-TWA again calls on the Victorian Government to demonstrate that it is genuinely committed to tackling the litany of significant problems in this sector and to rescind the delay of the EPA Amendment Act 2018 and implement the Act this year,” she concluded.