Australian territory tightens contam land rules

The government of New South Wales has rewritten the rules on contaminated land, making landowners responsible for reporting suspected problems rather than waiting for regulators to discover them.

It also gives legal backing to the polluter pays principle, making those who caused the contamination liable for it, even if they have a contract with a third party – such as a sale of land or clean up deal.

The level of evidence required by the Environmental Protection Authority has also been reduced.

Previously the regulator had to demonstrate a significant risk of harm from the contamination, but now it can declare a site contaminated if it considers the problem ‘significant enough to warrant regulation’.

This rather subjective wording effectively allows the authority to mark up sites it simply suspects of being contaminated.

It can also force landowners to commission a preliminary investigation of a site to assess whether there is any contamination.

Under the new regulations, landowners will find themselves on the wrong side of the law if they fail to report contamination they should reasonably have known about.

This obligation also requires them to have sought expert advice on whether a site might potentially be contaminated, making ignorance no protection from the law.

While this is bad news for a construction industry already hit by the pressures of the global financial crisis, it is good news for the environment and those involved in the assessment and clean-up of contaminated sites.

The changes have come in under the Contaminated Land Management Amendment Act 2008 which has just been passed by the NSW government.

Sam Bond

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