Last updated 8 February 2023

The Environmental Protection Act 1994 (Qld) (Environmental Protection Act) provides a general system of offences for causing unlawful, serious or material environmental harm or an environmental nuisance. To understand these offences, it is necessary to understand a number of key definitions in the Act:

  • An environmental value is a quality or physical characteristic of the environment that is conducive to ecological health, or public amenity or safety (or declared under an environmental protection policy) (s 9).
  • Environmental harm is any adverse effect on an environmental value (s 14).
  • Environmental nuisance is any unreasonable interference or likely interference with an environmental value caused by (s 15):
  • Material environmental harm is environmental harm that:
    • is not trivial or negligible in nature, extent or context
    • causes $5000 to $50 000 damage to property
    • costs $5000 to $50 000 to prevent or minimise, and to rehabilitate or restore the environment (s 16).
  • Serious environmental harm is environmental harm that causes actual or potential harm to environmental values that:
    • is irreversible, of high impact or widespread
    • causes actual or potential harm to environmental values of an area of high conservation value or special significance
    • causes greater than $50 000 damage to property
    • costs more than $50 000 to prevent or minimise, and to rehabilitate or restore the environment (s 17).

Environmental harm is a very wide concept. It can be caused by things such as tree clearing, fishing, pollution, mining, damming rivers, killing native animals, soil erosion and aircraft noise. However, the administration of the Environmental Protection Act is generally limited to regulating only contaminants and pollution rather than wider environmental harm issues (e.g. land clearing), which are regulated under other legislation.

A lecture explaining the core concepts of the Environmental Protection Act can be viewed below and is available on Youtube:

The general environmental duty

Section 319 of the Environmental Protection Act states the general environmental duty that a person must not carry out any activity that causes or is likely to cause environmental harm unless the person takes all reasonable and practicable measures to prevent or minimise the harm. In deciding the measures required to be taken to comply with this duty, regard must be had to:

  • the nature of the harm or potential harm
  • the sensitivity of the receiving environment
  • the current state of technical knowledge for the activity
  • the likelihood of successful application of the different measures that might be taken
  • the financial implications of the different measures as they would relate to the type of activity.

There is no positive or enforceable duty to comply with the general environmental duty in the Environmental Protection Act, but it provides a defence to liability under the Act if an activity causes an environmental nuisance or causes material or serious environmental harm.

Section 493A of the Environmental Protection Act defines unlawful environmental harm as material or serious environmental harm, or an environmental nuisance that is not specifically approved under the Environmental Protection Act (e.g. by an environmental authority) or where the general environmental duty is breached.

Duty to notify

Chapter 7, pt 1, div 2 of the Environmental Protection Act imposes a duty on people to notify the relevant administering authority as soon as they become aware that any activity causes unlawful serious or material harm. Normally this will mean notifying the Department of Environment and Science, but where a local government or other government department administers an activity, that entity should be notified. Employees who become aware of unlawful environmental harm are required to notify their employer, who is then required to notify the relevant government administrator.