Managing Landfills

Tabled: 3 September 2014

Audit Summary

Landfills can pose significant risks to the environment, human health and local community amenity if they are not well sited, constructed, managed and rehabilitated after the landfill closes. Good management requires landfill risks to be identified, assessed and managed in a timely and cost effective manner during both its open and closed phases.

Active landfills are those that currently accept waste. Closed landfills are those that received wastes in the past but no longer do. Older active or closed landfills can pose risks that are a legacy of being sited and built to the standards that were accepted as good practice at that time, but were less stringent than the standards that have applied since 2010.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) regulates and oversees the performance of landfills. All landfills must comply with the requirements of the Environment Protection Act 1970 so as not to pollute the environment. Higher-risk landfills are actively regulated by EPA through a licence or notice. Lower-risk landfills are not as actively regulated through a licence or notice, but still must comply with environment protection laws and government landfill policies.

EPA undertook an extensive review of its regulatory approach following an incident at the Brookland Greens Estate in the City of Casey in 2008 where residents living in proximity to a closed landfill were exposed to unacceptable levels of potentially explosive gases generated by the site. Subsequent internal and external reviews found EPA's regulation and oversight of landfills to be inadequate and this reflected organisation-wide shortcomings in its regulatory approach. To address this, EPA identified and implemented a range of regulatory reforms to its management and oversight of pollution—landfills being one element.

The objective of this audit was to determine whether landfills in Victoria are being appropriately regulated, constructed, managed and rehabilitated after this reform process so as not to pose an unacceptable risk to the environment, human health and local amenity.

The audit examined the effectiveness of EPA's oversight of landfill performance of both active and closed landfills. It also reviewed the efforts of four councils—Ballarat City Council, East Gippsland Shire Council, Hume City Council and Wyndham City Council—to comply with their responsibilities and requirements under the range of legislation, policies and best practice environment management guidelines for the siting, construction, operation and management of landfills. The audit also assessed 62 responses received from the remaining 75 councils to a questionnaire on landfill management.

Conclusions

EPA has developed a better practice risk-based framework and approach for the management and oversight of landfills. However, for this framework and approach to be fully effective and to be effectively understood and implemented by councils as landfill owners, a number of shortfalls in its implementation need to be addressed.

EPA's oversight and councils' management of the highest risks associated with gas and contaminated water generation at landfills has significantly improved as a result of EPA's reforms, and councils' efforts to comply with these. This is particularly the case for landfills and parts of landfills that have been constructed since 2010. However, further work is still required by councils to better manage the operational, rehabilitation and after-care practices at landfills and by EPA to oversee compliance with these requirements.

Councils have improved their landfill management since 2010 but have been slow to embrace—and have not fully understood—all their landfill management responsibilities around operational, rehabilitation and after-care issues. EPA has also been slow to implement key initiatives to drive environmental improvements around landfill legacy risks from sites constructed prior to 2010. Some of this slowness is understandable given the technical complexities and costs associated with addressing legacy risks that have been inherited as a result of less stringent standards, unclear responsibilities and poor management and oversight in the past.

EPA's reforms have significantly improved its oversight of active and highest-risk closed landfills due to improvements to its landfill licensing system, supporting guidance, and compliance and enforcement approach. However, there are inadequacies in its implementation:

  • EPA has not effectively translated its risk-based approach to overseeing landfill performance into its environmental auditing and compliance reporting systems. As a result, landfill owners are required to report all licence noncompliances, irrespective of the severity or lack of impact, and audit recommendations to address risks are not prioritised.
  • EPA's standard landfill licence conditions are not targeted to site-specific risks and are therefore not as effective in driving improvement in performance as they should be.
  • EPA's reforms have also contributed to a lack of certainty around approval processes for landfill owners, which in turn has led to unnecessary costs and time delays.
  • EPA has communicated its landfill performance requirements through multiple policies and guidance materials that are complex, not well integrated and at times ambiguous. As such, they are not clearly understood by landfill owners. This has compounded councils' slow approach to embracing all their landfill duties and responsibilities.

EPA has made its compliance and enforcement approach more targeted, active and transparent. Improvements are still required, however, to ensure actions to deter landfill noncompliance are consistently applied.

It is vital that EPA, its appointed environmental auditors, and councils—as landfill owners—work together to address these issues. They will need to introduce regular review and feedback processes to continually review progress, raise issues and educate each other in relation to the constraints each party operates under.

Findings

Audited councils

The four audited councils met EPA's required standards for how new landfill sites and new areas within a landfill that accept waste need to be designed and built. They had all increased their landfill resourcing and management activities to do this. They all met EPA's requirement to engage EPA-appointed environmental auditors to audit and review the risks that their licensed landfills pose. These actions have been particularly influential in enabling these councils to effectively identify and manage very high landfill risks at their licensed sites.

The most recent audits of gas and contaminated water—leachate—risks at these sites identified moderate to high risks at four of the five sites. The audits also found these risks had not yet resulted in any significant pollution impacts on the environment or human health. All four councils had some measures in place to manage the risks but the EPA-appointed environmental auditors had identified deficiencies in these measures and recommended further improvements. The councils had all been slow to respond to these recommendations.

Rehabilitation was also inadequate at these councils' licensed landfills, even though it is fundamental to managing leachate and gas risks.

Audited councils identified themselves as 'compliant' with some licence conditions even though they could not demonstrate this and there was evidence that they did not comply—such as in relation to covering waste each day and progressively rehabilitating the sites over time. This indicates they have not effectively prioritised or managed lower to moderate risks to the local environment and the amenity of the neighbouring community.

The audited councils had good knowledge of the risks from older parts of active, licensed landfills that were built before 2010, through the risk assessment and audit system used for the currently-operating landfill sites in which they are situated.

Since EPA introduced the first landfill policy in 1991, landfill owners have also been required to manage the rehabilitation and after-care of closed landfills—including gas and leachate risks—but the four audited councils had not done this efficiently or effectively because they had not comprehensively or systematically assessed and managed the legacy risks posed.

The councils also have not fully understood their roles and responsibilities for managing closed sites, as EPA's policy and guidelines do not clearly articulate responsibilities for identifying older sites and assessing the risks they pose.

Future management of risks

Councils will need to comprehensively identify closed sites and better assess, prioritise and manage legacy risks at both active and closed sites. This will require a high level of in-house landfill knowledge and experience that not all councils have.

Councils will need to uphold their rehabilitation obligations and EPA also needs to more strongly oversee compliance with policy objectives and best practice in this area.

The 62 councils responding to the audit questionnaire, plus the four audited councils, raised concerns about meeting the costs of appropriately assessing and managing the legacy risks at closed landfills and smaller sites exempt from licensing. Few councils indicated they had set aside funds to do this. Councils need to plan to meet anticipated rehabilitation costs.

Environment Protection Authority

Reviews conducted after the Brookland Greens case found EPA's oversight of landfills was poor. To address this, EPA implemented a range of reforms, which have significantly improved its regulation and oversight of landfill performance. These reforms include:

  • the requirements imposed by its 2010 Best Practice Environmental Management—Siting, Design, Operation and Rehabilitation of Landfills guidelines document, which specifies performance outcomes and measures for managing risks
  • a revised landfill licensing system, under which licensees are required to undertake risk assessments, implement monitoring programs that have been verified by an EPA-appointed environmental auditor and undergo regular audits by an EPA-appointed environmental auditor to monitor, assess and review the risks the landfill site poses and their management
  • requiring annual performance statement reports from landfill licensees that identify compliance with both licence conditions and any recommendations by an EPA-appointed environmental auditor to address identified issues or potential risks from the site
  • EPA's Licensed Operator Risk Assessment—a risk-based model used to prioritise compliance and enforcement activities on licensed sites and allocate EPA resources to the higher-risk sites
  • EPA's Annual Compliance Plan, which sets out targeted compliance activities for licensed landfill sites.

However, further improvement is still required to ensure these reforms are fully effective in overseeing landfill performance and to address remaining inadequacies in EPA's approach. This includes the need to:

  • translate its risk-based approach to auditing and compliance reporting requirements so that reporting is prioritised based on risk
  • ensure target licence conditions address site-specific risks
  • identify its high noncompliance risks across all landfill sites and transparently articulate its approach to managing these risks through its annual compliance plan
  • improve the clarity of guidance materials used to inform stakeholders of the regulatory requirements and process to meet these
  • clarify roles and responsibilities for closed landfills—which are not well understood by councils
  • address current information gaps around closed and unlicensed landfill risks and their compliance with policy objectives.
Guidance materials

EPA released its Closed Landfill Guidelines in 2012 and its Landfills exempt from licensing guideline in 2014. While there is initial evidence that these have and will continue to improve councils' focus on these sites, the roles and responsibilities of councils and the lack of clarity around some aspects of these guidelines still need to be addressed to ensure councils are fully effective in meeting their landfill regulatory responsibilities and duties.

Landfill management requirements and guidance are contained in copious policy and guidance documents but these are not well integrated. The current situation would be improved by EPA preparing a guide explaining the structure and hierarchy of the regulatory requirements—including objectives and outcomes—what processes and duties need to be undertaken to comply with these, and by whom.

Compliance and enforcement

EPA's approach to compliance and enforcement has significantly improved over the past four years. It is now risk based, more targeted, transparent and active. For it to be fully effective, discretionary actions taken by EPA officers to deter noncompliance with licence conditions and operational landfill risks must be more consistent and transparent.

EPA's efforts to meet its compliance plan targets have continuously improved since 2011. In 2012–13 the majority of its targets for landfills were met or exceeded.

Since 2010, EPA has put in place—or is well on the way of having in place—the essential elements of a better practice reporting framework.

It has good systems for measuring, monitoring and internally reporting on its performance in delivering its compliance functions across active licensed landfill sites and compliance with remedial notice requirements for both active and regulated closed landfills. However, its systems for measuring, monitoring and internal reporting of compliance of unlicensed landfills and unregulated closed landfills with policy objectives are not as effective or comprehensive.

This is because EPA has not prioritised these sites as a high risk, and the level of assessment, monitoring and reporting of compliance with policy objectives reflects this. As a consequence, councils also put far less focus and effort into these sites.

Recommendations

That councils:

  1. identify, prioritise and address all of their landfill responsibilities and obligations under the Environment Protection Act 1970, the 2004 Waste Management Policy (Siting, Design and Management of Landfills) and associated guidelines, including:
  • operating and progressively rehabilitating active sites
  • assessing and managing risks at closed sites
  • planning to meet anticipated rehabilitation and after-care costs
  1. build their in-house landfill knowledge and skills so that they can work with Environment Protection Authority-appointed environmental auditors and landfill experts to effectively prioritise and address risks
  2. consolidate the recommendations from environmental audits and other external and internal reviews across all landfills, and develop and implement risk-based priorities and time lines for addressing them
  3. improve their internal controls over landfill management through their internal risk and audit systems and landfill inspection processes
  4. work with the Environment Protection Authority and the waste and resource recovery groups to identify closed landfills, assess their risks and prioritise actions at a regional scale to address these.

That the Environment Protection Authority:

  1. works with the Department of Environment and Primary Industries and waste portfolio partners to develop options for the Minister for Environment and Climate Change to use the landfill levy for the timely rehabilitation of high-risk landfills
  2. further develops its current landfill plan into a comprehensive strategy that integrates all its landfill plans and activities, and is underpinned by a detailed resourcing and implementation plan
  3. reviews its landfill information to determine and prioritise the key noncompliance and emerging risks for targeted action, and identifies these in its annual compliance plan, supported by measures and outcomes to assess the effectiveness of its actions
  4. reviews the efficacy of current landfill licence conditions and develops additional risk-based conditions where required for inclusion on a site-by-site basis
  5. implements risk-based compliance and auditing reporting requirements, which include risk-based prioritisation requirements and reporting based on likelihood and severity of impact
  6. uses a peer review panel of landfill experts to advise it on complex landfill approvals, with clear terms of reference
  7. improves landfill guidance by:
  • preparing a landfill guide explaining the structure and hierarchy of the regulatory requirements for all landfill‑related processes and how all the relevant landfill guidelines and processes integrate
  • clarifying that it is councils' role to identify all closed landfill sites within their municipalities and register this information with the Environment Protection Authority and describing risk assessment requirements for unregulated closed landfills
  • improving best practice environmental management guidance in consultation with all stakeholders
  • works with the Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group to develop an appropriate planning process/tool to ensure the Environment Protection Authority's involvement in any rezoning or application process across Victoria where development adjacent to active or closed landfills may be involved
  • develops a public register of landfills
  • reviews its standard operating procedures for issuing remedies to require documented reasons as to what remedy is applied and why.

Submissions and comments received

In addition to progressive engagement during the course of the audit, in accordance with section 16(3) of the Audit Act 1994 a copy of this report, or part of this report, was provided to the Environment Protection Authority, Ballarat City Council, East Gippsland Shire Council, Hume City Council and Wyndham City Council with a request for submissions or comments.

Agency views have been considered in reaching our audit conclusions and are represented to the extent relevant and warranted in preparing this report. Their full section 16(3) submissions and comments are included in Appendix A.

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