The court judgement concludes a long legal battle between the now defunct Coffs Harbour-based quarry business Wyanga Holdings and the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority (EPA).
Wyanga Holdings’ environment protection licence permitted the extraction of up to 50,000 tonnes per annum of material at its Corindi Beach quarry but it was discovered that this limit was breached by 46,597 tonnes in 2011, 318,363 tonnes in 2012 and 31,512 tonnes in the first four months of 2013. As previously reported by Quarry, this resulted in the EPA suspending the business’s licence from August 2013 until the end of January 2014.
In September 2013, the business’s directors attempted court action against the EPA based on a legal loophole they believed could reverse the suspension. At the time, the quarry had been delivering gravel for the Pacific Highway upgrade, and Clause 94 of SEPP 2007 allowed quarries supplying government infrastructure jobs special dispensation from potential extraction limits. However, days before the court hearing, Wyanga Holdings decided to withdraw its claim, and was ordered by the Land and Environment Court to pay the legal costs for the EPA and the state’s Roads and Maritime Services department.
The business and its two directors were found guilty in May 2014 of breaching the environment protection licence and of providing misleading information to the EPA due to their failure to report in their 2012 annual return that the quarry had exceeded its extraction limit.
The court found that while the licence breaches had not resulted in any environmental harm, they carried a “potential” or “risk” of harm because the scale of extraction had not been approved and therefore had not been subject to an environmental impact assessment. Following this court case, the business’s suspended licence was revoked.
In a recent court decision, the Land and Environment Court fined Wyanga Holdings $3500 for the offences, while also individually fining one director $76,000 and the other $27,000. In addition, the business was ordered to pay the EPA’s $90,000 legal costs. In total, the fines amounted to $196,500.
Gary Davey, the director of the EPA’s north branch, said, “The EPA puts strict legally enforceable conditions on licences to protect the environment and the local community, and when licensees blatantly ignore these we take it very seriously and will use the full suite of regulatory tools at our disposal.”
In his commentary on the May 2014 case, Clayton Utz partner Nick Thomas noted, “The case is another indication that the EPA is prepared to take strong action against a person it believes has provided false or misleading information, and to hold individual directors responsible for the actions of a company … It also highlights the scrutiny which the EPA will apply to an EPA licence holder’s annual returns.
“Directors and managers of companies which hold EPA licences, and all companies involved in environmentally sensitive activities, should ensure they have robust systems in place to collate and check information which is provided to the EPA. These systems should be backed by a sound understanding of legal compliance risks, and good training and internal audit programs,” Thomas added.