Wednesday 3 December 2008

Power of the people

Following my report a couple of days ago, there's been a great deal of discussion around the region about Cairns Regional Council's new initiative to curb poor development controls, where damaging sediment is being allowed to run off in substantial volume, through waterways and tributaries, and out to the Great Barrier Reef.

Council hopes to strengthen its environmental enforcement by policing development sites, in particular soil and erosion control. The new enforcement team will be 'out in force' and issuing on-the-spot fines, we're told.

Following the release of Terry Spackman's revealing video on CairnsBlog two days ago, Division 4 Councillor Kirsten Lesina said that action will now occur in relation to the sediment problems at Kanimbla Heights.

"Additional measures will be implemented at Kanimbla, Stage 7 over the next few days," Kirsten said today. "[This will] include doubling of the hydraulic capacity of the sediment retention basin."

However, after talking with Council offices about the Kanimbila Heights development site, local Councillor Kirsten Lesina says this area will remain problematic. "They say that this is due to the extent of exposed works that has been undertaken, with out protection to the sediment."

"[Kanimbila engineers] Projex North have advised they will prioritise works to maximise cover of exposed works prior to Xmas, revised
erosion and sediment control plan due this week," Councillor Lesina said today.

"I love the power of a video camera and CairnsBlog," says Terry Spackman. "We've shaken them up and frightened them. This is very good."

However, Cairns resident Keith Martin, hopes that this latest 'environmental policing initiative' is due to Council’s commitment to clean up dodgy development sites. "I believe it may also have a lot to do with recent changes to the Environmental Protection Regulations that were passed by the Queensland Government in November 2008," Keith Martin says.

These new regulation changes, that come into effect on the 1st January next year, are complex. You can find them here. A more readable summary interpretation of the changes is available from a legal firm website here.

"Basically, the new changes devolve enforcement of those sections of the Environmental Protection Act relating to environmental nuisance and contamination from State Government to local Councils," Keith Martin says.

To quote from the summary...

  • “The new Regulation gives local governments responsibility for all environmental nuisance except where the unlawful emission is generated from a state or local government activity or regulated under another law.

    Local governments will be given flexibility to vary and regulate environmental nuisance through their local laws to reflect the community’s preferences for emission standards. The standards in a local law will override those in the new Regulation”.

And also...

  • “The responsibility for enforcement of minor water pollution matters, including the offences for the release of certain things or build up of sediment in a roadside gutter, stormwater drain or water, will also be devolved to local government under the new Regulation”.

An interpretation of these changes is that Council is now wholly responsible for enforcing environmental nuisance and water pollution laws. Furthermore, Council can set local laws on these matters that override State legislation.

Keith Martin believes that under these new changes, the community will no longer be able to complain to EPA about sediment discharges, noise and air pollution from development sites, because these enforcement powers will now be entirely Council’s responsibility.

"There are new State Planning Policies for noise, air and water, and that 'local governments will be required to have regard to the new SPPs when assessing development'," he says. "This has always been the case but up till now, Council has rarely given them much weight when assessing development applications."

Meanwhile, Member for Cairns Desley Boyle is claiming some kudos for this latest change of environmental heart at Council. In a letter in today's Cairns Post she applauds 'Val's good initiative'...

  • "Credit goes to Val Schier and the new Cairns Regional Council for tackling an issue that the previous Council refused to deal with. For years development sites on Cairns hillslopes have been poorly controlled especially during the wet season. Unnecessary environmental damage has occurred through poor sediment and erosion control. Nearby residents have borne the brunt.

    Some years ago when I was Environment and Local Government Minister I took up this issue with the Cairns Council. They said that their hands were tied in enforcing controls over builders/developers by state government requirements that limited council’s ability to act and instead involving them in slow and difficult court processes.

    I took that on board and changed the system to give councils the ability to impose on the spot fines on non-compliant builders/developers.

    Then I again asked the then Cairns Council to get tough on the issue but still they were reluctant to act.

    The EPA also offered assistance to the Council with best practice development site plans for erosion and sediment control which the Council could require before development work started. Site control plans such as these would have protected the environment as well as saved developers from accidental or otherwise compliance failures and the consequent fines.

    This all fell on deaf ears. How good it is to hear that the new Council has raised the penalties and formed a new specialised squad in the Environmental Protection Unit of Council to monitor and police controls on building sites. Great timing too with a heavy wet predicted. Good on you Val and Councillors.

"I will support Val but what more do you want her/the Council to do now that she has an implementation group up and functioning?" Desley says.

Along with Terry Spackman, I've been relentless in exposing serious sediment run-offs, so Council is forced to take action. Two months ago, I publicised Palm Cove's Foley Road, and Council then acted. A development at Sugarword Glenn on the southside is in serious problems as well, and have been forced to install sediment run-off controls. Developments in Redlynch and Bluewater are also coming under Council's eye.

Meanwhile, the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre CAFNEC, is asking locals to become 'sediment busters' and attend a meeting on Wednesday December 17th. "You will learn how you can take effective action in looking after our creeks, rivers and reef," says campaign director Steve Ryan.

"The meeting will address the roles and responsibilities of the Council’s [new] Environmental Protection unit and how the community can be report environmental incidents," Steve Ryan says. "This is for the whole community and environmental groups."

If you're tired of seeing our rainforest creeks and waterways running red with soil that should have stayed on someone's construction site, then it's time you stood up. Along with Steve Ryan, Brynn Mathews, an environmental regulation expert with EPA experience will address the meeting. Terry Spackman and also Toni Johnston, the Environmental Protection team leader at Council, will address the audience.

The public workshop is on at 5.30pm, Wednesday 17th December at the Civic Reception room at Council's Spence Street.

Meanwhile, Councillor Robert Pyne facilitated a meeting between community environmental activist Terry Spackman and head of Council's new sediment control team, Luke Nicholson.

Local councils have had some state environmental laws for a long time, but the old Kevin Byrne-led Council refused to use them when it came to sediment run-off from development sites.

"When I reported problems to EPA, they would say, it's a Council responsibility," Terry says. "Although EPA did act in two bad cases, Red Peak estate, and I think Kewarra Beach. My concern with these changes is, what happens when we get another Byrne-type Council that refuses to fine developers again?"

"However, I came away from the meeting with Luke Nicholson feeling cautiously optimistic that there will be a change for the better," Terry said. "Time will tell how willing he will be to use the big sticks available in the new year."


Anonymous said...

Shame on Val, her Councillors and Boyle claiming kudos for this as a Council initiative when in fact it is just due to changes in legislation coming from above – State Government EPA. How can Council take credit for this…. it has obviously been forced on them. How much more do CRC intend to mislead the public … do they think we are fools….will they be strong enough to stand up to developers once and for all. Guess time will tell ….. meantime our waterways and Reef suffer.

Anonymous said...

Council is now responsible for environmental nuisance and water pollution laws and can even set their own laws dealing with the problem. All very well but we have gone down this road before with zero outcome. This is the very same Council that for years has ignored its own Local Law 24 (Vegetation Protection) and failed to strengthen it when it had the opportunity to do so. Vegetation cleared to ground zero is a significant contributor to erosion problems and contamination of waterways.

When major amendments were made to the Vegetation Act and other associated legislation, Council had the opportunity under Section 854 of the Local Government Act to introduce new laws or strengthen Local Laws in relation to tree protection and vegetation clearing. Once a new planning scheme came into force, Local governments were unable to make new local laws that established a process about development that is clearing vegetation. Accordingly Local Law 24 can not now be amended only repealed. Council’s very liberal interpretation of “reasonably necessary” and Section 22 exemptions and their failure to apply, monitor and enforce this law, renders this law and its objects useless in regard to vegetation covered by their “protection” mapping.

Desley as usual jumps on the bandwagon claiming some credit for Council’s miraculous change of heart but neglects to mention that her government’s legislation the “Vegetation Act 1999” has been and continues to be a major part of the problem. Under the “urban exemption” unless native vegetation is Category 1 (endangered) it can be cleared without a permit. Take a look at the CairnsPlan Structure Map and the areas designated Urban or Future Urban and you can see the problem and appreciate what has already occurred and continues to occur in relation to clearing particularly on hillslopes, in and around waterways and wetland areas and the consequential erosions problems The Vegetation Act never considered the implications of the provisions of the Act in relation to Tropical regions where rainfall is high and vegetation is a critical component not just for stability of soils and habitat but for the biodiversity of the climate itself.

The “urban exemption” and Council’s failure to strengthen Local Law 24 and to apply monitor and enforce with any determination Desired Environmental Outcomes, the Vegetation Conservation & Waterway Significance Code and FNQROC Development Principles leaves Cairns without any effective protection of vegetation or regulation on clearing.

Council and the State Government are well aware of this problem but refuse to act. You don’t need rocket science to work out why - development at all costs.
The bulldozer cowboys continue on their merry way because they can. That’s the reality.
Erosion problems and waterway contamination will never be successfully tackled until the wanton and unnecessary clearing of vegetation by developers is addressed.