Contamination in the Botany area had residents concerned. Photo: Sahlan Hayes
A parliamentary inquiry is to be held into the performance of NSW's Environment Protection Authority after a string of controversies that have dogged the agency, including botched prosecutions, accusations of cover-ups, mismanagement and a referral to the corruption watchdog.
Labor's environment spokesman, Luke Foley, successfully moved for the inquiry in the NSW Upper House on Thursday after warning that the EPA appeared more focused on protecting polluting industries than looking after the community and human health.
It also follows the introduction of a private member's bill last year by opposition MP Ron Hoenig calling for the EPA to be stripped of its powers to prosecute serious environmental offences because it was "incompetent" and does not have the "guts" to go after environmental criminals. Mr Hoenig wanted the powers to be given to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
EPA chief executive officer Barry Buffier said the inquiry would be an "opportunity to increase public awareness and understanding about the important role we play in protecting the communities and environment of NSW".
The inquiry comes after months of revelations by Fairfax Media about controversies over the EPA's performance, including its management of coal dust pollution in the Hunter, the mercury and other toxic chemical contamination in the Botany Hillsdale region and its alleged failure to protect koala habitats in the Royal Camp State Forest.
It also follows the EPA's abandonment of its biggest ever prosecution case, which was launched against the chemical company DuPont for allegedly polluting the ground and killing trees and plants around its Girraween site. DuPont had maintained it was not responsible for the pollution.
Community groups around the state, which have led the complaints about the EPA, have welcomed the inquiry saying it is in the best interests of the people.
The Hunter Community Environment Centre spokesman Dr John Mackenzie said they were pleased it would focus on the agency's repeated mishandling of coal dust monitoring in the region, which was referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption earlier this year.
“We are hopeful that the inquiry will improve the EPA’s ability to be a strong and effective environmental regulator," said Dr Mackenzie. "This inquiry is also vital for restoring community confidence in the EPA, given that its performance in recent years has fallen well shy of community expectations."
Botany resident Sharon Price said: "We look forward to a long-awaited, positive outcome."
The inquiry will specifically look into the land contamination issues at Botany and Hillsdale, the coal dust pollution in the Hunter, and the ground water contamination in the Piliga by Santos. Mr Foley has raised concerns about exploration company Santos being given a ''pathetic $1500 fine for the contamination of a water aquifer with uranium at levels 20 times higher than safe drinking water guidelines''.
It will also look into the regulation of cruise passenger ships at the White Bay Cruise Terminal and the regulation of forestry practices in Royal Camp State Forest.