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Nature Positive Plan: Federal EPA to conduct surprise audits under sweeping new powers

Dan Jervis-Bardy
The Nightly
2 Min Read
More details about the proposed new environment protection agency have emerged as Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek prepares to introduce legislation to establish the body.
More details about the proposed new environment protection agency have emerged as Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek prepares to introduce legislation to establish the body. Credit: AAP;Lukas Coch

The new federal environment watchdog would be able to conduct surprise audits under sweeping new powers to police nature laws.

More details about the proposed new environment protection agency have emerged as Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek prepares to introduce legislation to establish the body.

Federal officials also detailed at a recent webinar the new “stop the clock” rules designed to speed up decision-making on projects.

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Ms Plibersek is pressing ahead with setting up a new federal EPA under a new multi-stage approach to her controversial Nature Positive Plan.

The most contentious parts of the plan — including new national environment standards — have been put on the back burner after a mining sector backlash.

The new EPA would assume responsibility for approvals and assessments, except on projects which the ministers decide to “call in” for a decision.

The body would be armed with new powers, including the ability to issue “environment protection orders” to halt a project where the work being carried out poses a risk of serious harm to nature.

Serious intentional breaches of environmental laws would attract fines of up $782 million or seven years’ imprisonment.

At a webinar earlier this month to update stakeholders on the reforms, federal Environment Department officials revealed the body would be able to audit operations “without giving notice” under expanded compliance powers.

“The auditing powers ... they’re critical,” department official Andrew McNee said.

“At the moment we have quite limited powers to request particular documents to test compliance or to go and visit a particular site.”

Asked about the proposed new powers, a spokeswoman for Ms Plibersek said “if people are complying with the law, there won’t be an issue”.

Changes will also be made to “stop the clock” provisions to prevent officials from holding up projects.

The department is currently allowed to “stop the clock” on the legislated assessment timeframe to request information from proponents.

Under the proposed change, the proponent would be able to reject a request to pause the assessment timer, forcing the decision-maker to issue a verdict based on the information it already

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