Legislation

Guide to the Environment Protection Act


This guide is to help the community and businesses understand what is in the Environment Protection Act 1970 (‘the Act’) and how it applies to them. It gives a brief overview of the key parts of the Act and links to more information on the website. The guide does not contain an exhaustive description or interpretation of sections of the Act and does not constitute legal advice.

Guide to the Environment Protection Act + Expand all Collapse all

  • What does the Act protect?

    The Act provides a legal framework to protect the environment in the State of Victoria. It applies to noise emissions and the air, water and land in Victoria, the territorial sea along the Victorian coast and to the discharge of waste to the Murray River from any premises in Victoria.

  • What is EPA and what does it do?

    EPA is a statutory authority created by the Act. It is not a government department. However, it does report to a Minister of Parliament.

    The Act sets out EPA’s powers, duties and functions. The language used in the Act is broad, reflecting the wide range of responsibilities of EPA, as well as Parliament’s intention to provide EPA with ample scope to do its work.

    EPA’s role includes:

    EPA’s work is underpinned by the eleven environment protection principles in the Act. 

  • What powers does EPA have?

    Below is a list of EPA’s key powers that it uses to regulate industry and ensure compliance with the Act. Each is briefly summarised with links to other sections of the website and EPA publications for further information.

    Issue pollution control notices or directions

    EPA can issue notices to prevent or remedy a range of circumstances involving pollution or contamination. EPA has specific powers to issue notices to stop pollution (pollution abatement notices and minor works pollution abatement notices) and to clean up pollution (clean-up notices). These notices specify action that must be taken by the notice recipient, such as conducting a clean-up, stopping works, installing controls or changing a process or activity. EPA has published a Remedial notices policy (publication 1418) to ensure that when EPA issues these notices they are made consistently, constructively and effectively. It defines what the notices are, why EPA uses them and when they are applied.

    EPA can also issue a verbal or written direction to stop an activity, address an incident, or undertake an activity, to prevent imminent danger. Directions must be followed immediately.

    Non-compliance with an EPA notice or direction is an offence.

    More information about EPA notices and directions

    Inspect sites and request information

    EPA authorised officers can enter and inspect certain business premises and any private property where it is reasonably suspected that pollution is occurring. When carrying out an inspection, EPA authorised officers can request assistance from any person on site. They can take photographs, films, audio, video or other recordings, as well as take samples.

    EPA authorised officers also have powers to obtain information. They can issue a notice requiring the name and address of any person who is occupying or is in control of premises or a process. A notice can also require information such as reports, books, plans or maps relating to pollution or waste discharge.

    Businesses and individuals should provide assistance to an authorised officer, or allow others to provide assistance, and respond to any reasonable enquiry from an authorised officer. Information relevant to the inspection should not be intentionally concealed. It is a serious offence, and significant penalties apply for anyone who:

    • assaults, intimidates or threatens, or attempts to assault, intimidate or threaten an authorised officer or anyone assisting them
    • intentionally hinders, delays or obstructs an authorised officer in the course of their duties
    • refuses access to an authorised officer or anyone assisting an authorised officer
    • ignores or does not comply with a lawful direction from an authorised officer
    • provides false or misleading information to an authorised officer.

    More information about authorised officers and their powers.

    Carry out compliance and enforcement activities

    An important part of EPA’s role is to monitor compliance with the Act and take enforcement action when breaches of the Act have occurred.

    EPA has adopted a risk-based model in which our targeting of enforcement and our responses to incidents, compliance requirements, level of non-compliance and pollution reports will change depending on the risk or harm to health and the environment. EPA prioritises its compliance monitoring and inspection efforts towards the biggest risks of harm to the environment and to those people and businesses that are less likely to comply. 

    EPA’s Compliance and Enforcement Policy (publication 1388) sets out EPA’s approach, method and priorities for ensuring compliance with the Act. Our approach ranges from providing advice on how to comply with the law to targeted inspections of sites impacting on or posing a risk to the environment. The Compliance and Enforcement Policy also details EPA’s enforcement powers, how they differ depending on the severity of the non-compliance, and an explanation of how and when they are used. In addition to issuing notices and directions, EPA’s enforcement response ranges from giving warnings to revocation of licences and prosecutions.

    More information about compliance and enforcement.

    Issue works approvals

    Before certain industries can be established at a site a works approval may be required. These premises are referred to as ‘scheduled premises’ and are set out in the Environment Protection (Scheduled Premises and Exemptions) Regulations. A works approval is usually required for industrial and waste management activities that have the potential for significant environmental impact.

    Works approvals were introduced in the 1980s as an addition to EPA’s licensing framework to allow EPA, industry and affected community members to identify and resolve potential environmental problems before a project is built. By working at the project design stage, energy, water and waste savings can be made, resulting in cost-effective and environmentally sound designs.

    EPA has the power to issue works approvals that permit (subject to certain conditions) the construction of a plant, the installation of equipment or the modification of a process. When a works approval is issued, the approved works can start, subject to the works approval holder having local government planning approvals and any other required approvals.

    It is an offence to commence construction, installation of equipment or modification of a process without a works approval if one is required. Where a works approval has been issued, non-compliance with any condition of the approval is an offence.

    More information about works approvals for business, public participation in works approvals and community information about works approvals

    Issue research, development and demonstration approvals

    The works approval process was established to deal with commercial-scale proposals where industrial process and discharge parameters are well known and where there is an ongoing discharge to the environment. Research, development and demonstration projects that are typically limited in scale, duration and environmental impact can be exempted from obtaining a works approval. For these types of projects, EPA can issue a research, development and demonstration (RD&D) approval.

    It is an offence to conduct a research, development and demonstration project without either an RD&D approval or a works approval, if one is required. Where a RD&D approval has been issued, non-compliance with any condition of the approval is an offence.

    More information about RD&D approvals.

    Issue licences

    Some business and industrial premises require an EPA licence to operate. EPA has the power to issue licences for these premises, which contain conditions to control the operations so that there is no adverse effect on the environment. These conditions address areas such as waste acceptance and treatment, air and water discharges, noise and odour. An application for a licence is usually made following the completion of works that have been subject to a works approval.

    An annual fee is payable to EPA for the duration of a licence. The amount of the fee depends on the type of operation and the volume and quality of any discharge to the environment.

    In applying the ‘polluter-pays principle’, the Act provides for additional economic measures, which apply to some licence holders. Certain licensed businesses are required to pay an environment protection levy and/or a financial assurance to EPA. A financial assurance ensures that money is available for clean-up at licensed premises in the event of insolvency or insufficient resources.

    Licensed premises are required to submit an annual performance statement (APS) providing analysis of performance against licence provisions. You can search for copies of licences and APSs.

    It is an offence to operate without a licence where one is required. For businesses that have a licence, non-compliance with any condition of the licence is an offence.

    More information about licences.

    Issue emergency discharge approvals

    EPA can authorise discharges, emissions, storage, treatment, disposal and handling of waste in emergencies and other temporary situations. Examples of emergency discharge approvals include emergency events (such as clean-up after a bushfire or flood), temporary events (like temporary relief of a public nuisance or community hardship) and commissioning (bringing new equipment on or offline).

    More information about approvals for emergency discharge, storage or use of waste (30A approvals).

  • Can I seek review of an EPA decision?

    Many of the decisions made by EPA can be independently reviewed by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

    The Act sets out which EPA decisions can be reviewed. The most common decisions made by EPA that can be reviewed involve: 

    • works approvals, licences, permits
    • pollution abatement notices, minor works pollution abatement notices and amendments
    • litter abatement notices
    • variation or discharge of financial assurance.

    The Act also sets out who is entitled to seek review of the decision. Reviews are usually available to recipients of notices, applicants for approvals and holders of approvals. For example, a works approval applicant has a right of review of an EPA decision to refuse a works approval or impose conditions. Similarly, a recipient of a pollution abatement notice or a minor works pollution abatement notice may make an application to amend the notice. 

    Persons whose interests are affected by certain decisions in relation to works approvals or licences can also apply for review of EPA’s decision

    EPA also has an internal process for reviewing actions by its authorised officers.

  • What are the main environmental issues covered by the Act?

    Below is a list of the main environmental issues covered by the Act. Each topic is briefly described with links to other sections of the website and EPA publications to help you understand the topics more.

    Pollution of air, land and water

    A large portion of the Act is directed at controlling pollution and ensuring Victoria has clean air, land and water. Pollution is not specifically defined in the Act but, in summary, pollution involves a change in the environment which makes air, land or water any of the following:

    • noxious, poisonous or offensive to humans
    • harmful or potentially harmful to humans, animals or plants
    • detrimental to any beneficial use.

    Beneficial uses are uses and values of the environment that communities want to protect, such as human health and wellbeing, local amenity and aesthetic enjoyment. Beneficial uses are specified in State environment protection policies.

    Any person who causes or permits air pollution (including odour pollution), land pollution or water pollution commits an offence. The Act imposes significant maximum penalties for pollution offences. In certain circumstances if the pollution is intentional, reckless or negligent the normal maximum penalty may be increased and may result in a term of imprisonment.

    EPA uses its powers, such as directions and notices, to control and rectify pollution or to prevent it occurring.

    More information on identifying and reporting pollution.

    Waste

    Waste is broadly defined in the Act. In general terms it is any material or substance that is of no further use and has been discarded. If not properly managed, waste can cause pollution and adverse impacts on the environment. 

    The Act gives EPA a key role in regulating waste through issuing:

    • works approvals and licences for industrial and waste management activities that have the potential for significant environmental impact, including landfills
    • licences to businesses who receive or treat waste
    • permits for the transport of prescribed industrial waste.

    Some of the Act’s powers to regulate waste are given to other government bodies. For example, the Act creates a septic tank permitting system which is managed by local councils. It also creates the Metropolitan Waste Management Group (covering metropolitan Melbourne) and the Regional Waste Management Groups (covering regional areas), which work with local councils to plan and coordinate waste management facilities and services in their respective areas.

    People who discharge waste to the air, water or land must comply with the provisions of the Act and, where applicable, works approvals and licences. A number of specific offences apply to industrial waste, which is potentially harmful waste or waste arising from commercial, industrial or trade activities or laboratories. For example, industrial waste cannot be dumped or deposited on a site that is not licensed to receive such waste. The penalty for non-compliance with this industrial waste offence is higher than standard penalties under the Act, reflecting the increased environmental risk associated with the activity.

    Management and transport of prescribed industrial waste (the more hazardous types of waste) is controlled under the Act and the Environment Protection (Industrial Waste Resource) Regulations 2009. A person conducting any business that includes transport of prescribed waste on a highway must have a permit for each vehicle used to transport the waste. This requirement extends not only to private individuals and businesses but also municipal councils and waste management groups.

    Responsibility is put on the waste producer, transporter and receiver to ensure that a waste transport certificate accompanies each load of prescribed industrial waste, that appropriate records are kept regarding the identification and movement of the waste and that the receiving premises are licensed to receive the type of waste being transported.

    Prescribed industrial waste producers are required to assess processes which produce the waste to establish whether means of avoidance or reduction are available. If technology and facilities are practically accessible to avoid or reduce the waste production, these must be used. If avoidance or reduction is not practically accessible, the operator must consider availability of reuse or recycling, then treatment or reprocessing, implementing the option highest in the waste hierarchy.

    In relation to landfills, the Act provides for levies to be paid in relation to each tonne of waste deposited at a landfill. One of the key purposes of the landfill levy is to provide additional and ongoing funding to support efforts by government, industry and the community to reduce waste. Landfill levies create an incentive for waste generators to investigate ways to reduce the amount of waste they generate and dispose of to landfill. Calculating the landfill levy and recycling rebates (publication 332) describes the methods that landfills subject to the levy must use to calculate landfill levy payments on a quarterly basis.

    More information on waste.

    Litter

    The Act regulates the deposit of litter and the distribution of materials that may become litter.

    There are a number of littering offences in the Act, including depositing litter, failing to comply with a litter abatement notice and setting fire to a receptacle for litter. The Act provides for some defences, such as when the deposit was accidental and everything reasonably possible has been done to retrieve the litter.

    When litter is deposited from a vehicle, the Act deems the owner, driver and authorised users of the vehicle to be guilty. EPA’s policy is to issue an infringement notice to the vehicle’s registered owner. If the registered owner isn’t responsible for the littering because someone else was driving their vehicle, the owner can provide EPA with a statutory declaration stating who was responsible.

    Littering is treated more seriously if it is intentional. A higher penalty applies for intentional littering and includes a possible penalty of one month in prison.

    There are also offences for material that may become litter, which include:

    • delivering unsolicited documents in any place other than a mailbox, newspaper receptacle or under a door,
    • placing leaflets on vehicles
    • posting bills without consent.

    On-the-spot fines can be given to anyone in breach of littering provisions. A litter abatement notice or direction to remove litter or disorderly object can also be given. 

    In addition to EPA, other bodies have authority to enforce littering provisions under the Act, including local councils and Victoria Police. Litter enforcement officers have the power to gain entry to premises, require person to provide their name and address or require a person believed to be involved in littering to provide details of others involved; for example, the source of material that may become litter.

    EPA has a public litter reporting service, which enables members of the public to report people who throw litter from a Victorian-registered motor vehicle. As a result of this service, more than 20,000 people are reported to EPA every year.

    Noise

    EPA develops policies, Regulations and guidelines to prevent and control noise, and then partners with other agencies to provide advice on the best ways to implement them.

    Principle noise provisions under the Act control:

    • emission of unreasonable noise from residential premises
    • noise from entertainment venues
    • motor vehicles and motor boats capable of emitting noise above prescribed limits
    • equipment and vehicles which do not comply with prescribed noise emission standards
    • equipment and vehicles which require noise-reduction devices or specific labelling.

    A person who emits or causes objectionable noise is guilty of an offence. Acceptable conditions for emitting noise are set out in Regulations and State environment protection policies. There are a number of factors which affect the acceptable noise level, including time of day, source and location. The prohibited times for residential noise can be found here.

    EPA investigates noise from major industries such as EPA-licensed sites and manufacturing facilities.

    Local authorities and police also have authority to enforce noise provisions under the Act. For example, police have powers to deal with noise complaints from entertainment venues such as pubs, clubs and reception centres. After midnight, officers can issue a direction to abate the noise, if appropriate. Failing to comply can result in a large fine.

    More information on noise, noise guidelines, noise-related legislation.

    Motor vehicles

    The Act sets out specific offences for air and noise emissions from vehicles. Acceptable vehicle emission levels and test methods are specified in the Environment Protection (Vehicle Emissions) Regulations 2003.

    Notices can be served on a vehicle owner requiring them to either take their car to an EPA-approved testing station or obtain a certificate of compliance. A notice may prohibit use of the vehicle (after a period of at least 30 days) until compliance has been confirmed.

    It is an offence to contravene a notice or to sell a vehicle before a certificate of compliance is received by the EPA. 

    More information on motor vehicle, notices and approved vehicle testers.

    Hazardous chemicals

    The Act contains a process for controlling the use of hazardous chemicals. Notifiable chemical orders can declare a chemical to be a notifiable chemical and either totally prevent or create conditions relating to the storage, handling, use or supply of that chemical. Contravention of the requirements set out in a notifiable chemical order is a serious offence.

    There are notifiable chemical orders in place for chlorine compounds, arsenic, PCBs and organotin anti-fouling paint.

    More information on notifiable chemical orders.

    Environmental audits

    An environmental audit is an assessment of the nature and extent of harm (or risk of harm) to the environment posed by an industrial process or activity, waste, substance or noise.

    The Act provides for the statutory appointment of environmental auditors and their responsibilities to ensure high-quality, rigorous environmental audits are conducted by appropriately qualified professionals. Appointed environmental auditors may be engaged by anyone from private or public sectors to provide independent, objective environmental advice.

    EPA manages the environmental audit system through:

    • a rigorous process to appoint auditors
    • a statutory basis requiring the appropriate conduct of auditors, with suspension or revocation of appointment if breached
    • significant financial and custodial penalties for providing false or misleading information
    • requiring auditors to undertake audits only within their field of expertise and that of their expert support team
    • regular review of their work.

    More information on environmental auditing.

  • Glossary of terms

    Definitions

    Like most pieces of legislation, the Act contains a definition section, which is section 4. Many of the words and terms used throughout the Act (for example, ‘clean up’) are defined in section 4.

    Readers of the Act need to be aware that some terms used in a specific part of the Act are given a definition that applies for that part. For example, in section 20(6), the term ‘relevant period’ is given a specific meaning which only applies to section 20(4).

    EPA often refers to some of the terms in the Act by their section numbers or by an acronym.

    Commonly used terms

    Below is a list of commonly used acronyms and other terms. The sections of the Act in which the terms are used are in brackets.

    • 20B conference – meeting with interested parties organised by the EPA to ensure it is fully informed before it makes a decision (section 20B)
    • 30A approval -  approval for the discharge, emission, deposit, storage, treatment, disposal or handling of waste in emergencies and other temporary situations
    • 55(3) notice – notice to produce documents (section 55(3))
    • 55(3D) notice – notice to identify person in occupation or control (section 55(3D))
    • 67AC order – an alternative sentencing order that may include publicising the offence, undertaking a specific project to restore or enhance the environment, or undertaking an environmental audit (section 67AC)
    • IWMP – industrial waste management policy (section 18E)
    • NEPM – National Environment Protection Measure (sections 4, 17A, 49AE, 71)
    • NCO – notifiable chemical order (sections 4, 30C-30D)
    • PAN – pollution abatement notice (sections 31A-B, 35-36, 60A-60B)
    • PIN – penalty infringement notice (note: the Act just calls it an infringement notice; section 63B)
    • SEPP – State environment protection policy (sections 4, 16, 17-18A, 19, 37A)
    • VCAT – Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (sections 4, 32-37A, 50XA)
    • WMP – waste management policy (sections 4, 16A-18B, 19, 37A)

Page last updated on 10 Apr 2013