The ERS is a reference tool, it does not set compliance limits

The ERS provides a reference to help make decisions. It does not:

  • create specific obligations you must follow
  • set out enforceable compliance limits
  • describe levels that it is okay to pollute up to.

This reflects an important shift in approach of the Environment Protection Act 2017. Instead of using standards to create obligations or set limits, now everyone must minimise risks of harm to human health and the environment from their activities. This is known as the general environmental duty (GED). The GED will encourage better environmental performance over time.

How decision makers use the Environment Reference Standard

Decision makers use the Environment Reference Standard (ERS) by considering it as part of the decision-making process.

To evaluate a proposal or activity, decision makers need to understand its potential consequences for human health and the environment. Consideration of a proposal’s impact on environmental values in the ERS can help with their evaluation.

The ERS must be considered when required by law. To do this, the person that develops a proposal should identify the relevant environmental values. They should think about things such as:

  • what they know about the proposal, or type of activity
  • its possible direct or indirect impacts
  • the environmental setting.

Environmental values that are relevant to a proposal should be looked at more closely. When assessing these environmental values, the assessment should be done in a way that is:

  • appropriate. This means the methods used should match the type of indicators and objectives, and the setting;
  • proportionate. This means the methods used should match how complex the proposal is and the extent of potential impacts or risks.

Situations where environmental values may not be relevant

Many environmental values apply to some parts of Victoria and not to others. The ERS also identifies particular areas where environmental values don’t apply. For example, environmental values don’t apply to water in landfill cells.

Where environmental values do apply, there are situations where it is not necessary to look at them in detail. These situations include where:

  • the proposal would have no effect on the environmental value
  • the initial assessment clearly shows that the environmental value is not relevant. For example, the environmental value “geothermal properties” is not relevant where the water does not have geothermal properties
  • specific Regulations apply to that part of the environment or activity. For example, the ambient sound standards may not be relevant for premises regulated by:

There might be other ways of looking at impacts than by considering relevant environmental values. Decision makers may also look at further impacts, use other indicators and objectives, or apply other tools or methods where they are more appropriate.

Using the ERS for EPA licence assessments

EPA is responsible for deciding whether to issue certain types of permissions, such as licences, and exemptions. These include:

  • a development licence 
  • an operating licence
  • a pilot project licence
  • an exemption from a development or operating licence.

When assessing applications, EPA considers things such as:

  • measures to comply with the general environmental duty (GED). 
  • the impact on human health and the environment, including any environmental values in any relevant environment reference standard
  • the principles of environment protection according to the Environment Protection Act 2017
  • the best available techniques and technologies.

There is no “one size fits all” way that EPA will consider these matters. EPA will always exercise its judgement independently in line with EPA’s objectives and policies. We will weigh up all relevant issues to make a decision.

The ERS works alongside the GED. The GED is central to the new Act and is a critical part of a licence decision. Because of this, applicants should focus on minimising risks of harm, so far as reasonably practicable.

The measures that you propose to comply with the GED may still result in environmental impacts. The ERS provides a benchmark for looking at these impacts. It helps EPA evaluate whether these impacts are reasonable, or whether you may need to do more before EPA will issue the licence.

Using the ERS for planning permit assessments

Local councils are usually the Responsible Authority for assessing planning permits under the Planning and Environment Act 1987. This Act states they may consider any relevant environment reference standard “if the circumstances appear to require it.”

The Responsible Authority must always consider any significant effects that a proposal may have on the environment, or the environment may have on a proposal. The ERS is one way of looking at these “significant effects”. It would be appropriate to use the ERS to consider these effects where a proposal:

  • involves significant risks to the environment or human health
  • could impact relevant environmental values.

Environmental auditors using the ERS

Environmental auditors must consider any relevant environment reference standard when carrying out their functions. This includes when doing preliminary risk screen assessments and environmental audits. For auditors, the ERS is a reference tool to help identify potential risks of harm from:

  • contaminated land
  • pollution
  • waste
  • an activity.

In line with the scope of an audit, the ERS will help auditors to determine if they need to recommend further:

  • investigation
  • assessment
  • remediation
  • management.

Read more about the ERS

The Environment Reference Standard

Guide to the Environment Reference Standard (publication 1992)

Authorities who use the Environment Reference Standard

Reviewed 16 September 2021