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This article was written by Sally Crosswell

Sally Crosswell has a Bachelor of Laws (Hons), a Bachelor of Communication and a Master of International and Community Development. She also completed a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice at the College of Law. A former journalist, Sally has a keen interest in human rights law.

Environmental Offences (Qld)


Environmental offences under Queensland law encompass a wide range of activities that harm the environment. The main piece of legislation that governs environmental offences in the state is the Environmental Protection Act 1994.

“Environment” under the Act includes ecosystems and their parts; all natural and physical resources; the qualities and characteristics of places that contribute to their biological diversity, scientific value, amenity, harmony and sense of community; and the social, economic, aesthetic and cultural conditions that affect or are affected by those ecosystems, resources or places.

What are environmental offences?

The Act contains offences for causing unlawful, serious or material environmental harm or an environmental nuisance. A key definition under the Act in relation to offences is “environmental value”, which is:

  • a quality or physical characteristic of the environment that is conducive to ecological health or public amenity or safety; or
  • another quality of the environment identified and declared to be an environmental value under an environmental protection policy or regulation.

Environmental harm

Environmental harm is “any adverse effect, or potential adverse effect” on an environmental value. It can be caused by an activity, whether it is a direct or indirect result of that activity, or whether it results from the activity alone or from a combination of the activity and other activities or factors.

It is a very broad definition which captures offences such as tree clearing, fishing, dumping waste, killing native animals, damming rivers and mining.

The harm is classed as material or serious.

Material environmental harm is harm that:

  • is not trivial or negligible in nature, extent or context; or
  • causes actual or potential loss or damage to property of more than $5000 but less than $50,000; or
  • results in costs of more than $5000 but less than $50,000 incurred to take action to
    • prevent or minimise the harm; and
    • rehabilitate or restore the environment to its condition before the harm.

Serious environmental harm is harm that:

  • is irreversible, of a high impact or widespread; or
  • is caused to:
    • an area of high conservation value; or an areas of special significance, such as the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area; or
  • causes actual or potential los or damage to property worth $50,000 or more; or
  • results in costs of more than $50,000 incurred to take action to
    • prevent or minimise the harm; and
    • rehabilitate or restore the environment to its condition before the harm.

A person who unlawfully causes material harm to the environment faces a maximum penalty of a fine of 1665 penalty units ($228,105). If they cause the harm wilfully, they face a maximum penalty of a fine of 4500 penalty units ($616,000) or 2 years imprisonment.

A person who unlawfully causes serious harm to the environment faces a maximum penalty of a fine of 4500 penalty units ($616,000). If they cause the harm wilfully, they face a maximum penalty of a fine of 6250 penalty units ($856,250) or 5 years imprisonment.

If a court is not satisfied a person is guilty of serious environmental harm, it can find the person guilty of material environmental harm.

Environmental nuisance

Environmental nuisance is an offence that involves “unreasonable interference with an environmental value” caused by:

  • aerosols, fumes, light, noise, odour, particles or smoke; or
  • an unhealthy, offensive or unsightly conditions because of contamination;
  • another way prescribed by regulation.

A person who unlawfully causes an environmental nuisance faces a maximum penalty of a fine of 600 penalty units ($82,200). If they cause the nuisance wilfully, they face a maximum penalty of a fine of 1665 penalty units ($228,105).

Department of Environment and Science

The department is the state’s environmental regulator, responsible for compliance, investigation and enforcement of environmental laws. It administers the Act as well as a range of other legislation, including the:

Enforcement

Enforcement action taken by the department can punish, deter or remedy a contravention of environmental law and falls into 7 general categories:

  • a warning letter;
  • a penalty infringement notice;
  • an administrative notice and order made under legislation;
  • proceedings for a court order made under legislation;
  • an enforceable undertaking;
  • prosecution;
  • suspension or cancellation of a permit licence or authority.

A warning letter is issued for minor contraventions, where a fine may not be appropriate or where a contravention can be easily remedied, or where the contravention is a first offence.

An infringement notice is used to deal with a minor contravention which is not serious enough for prosecution, such as littering, where the scale of the impact is known and small. Such a notice acts as a deterrent and allows for an offence to be dealt with quickly and without the time and expense involved in prosecution. A recipient can either pay the fine or contest the notice in court.

An administrative action aims to prevent or rectify a contravention. Such actions include issuing a notice to a business to determine the cause of an unlawful emission.

A court order can require a person to stop committing an offence, or to remedy the offence. Such an order is usually appropriate to deal with a major or serious contravention.

An enforceable undertaking is a written agreement between the department and a person which requires the person to take certain actions to achieve compliance with the legislation in order to avoid prosecution.

Prosecution is used when alternatives have failed or where there has been a serious or major contravention. The decision to prosecute is based on the prospects of success and whether prosecution is in the public interest.

The suspension or cancellation of a licence is allowed under legislation which provides a list of grounds. The grounds include a failure to pay fees, to meet suitability criteria or to abide by administrative requirements. Suspension or cancellation of a licence is designed to protect the licensing system and so, the environment and the public.

For advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.

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