The Guardian • Issue #2076


  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2076

Bad governance

Anna Pha

The UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights, Marcos A Orellana, issued a damning report on his visit to Australia last month. Orellana drew attention to the disconnect between government narratives concerning chemicals and pollution, and communities, and civil society which denounces the capture of the State for the benefit of mining, oil, gas, agrochemical and other corporate interests.

“I have also seen a disconnect in the relations between companies and workers. There is a great distance between the work imagined by regulations and company policies, and the lived experiences of workers’ exposure.” Orellana raises the issue of multiple instances of exposures to hazardous silica dust. “More generally, it was brought to my attention that regulations in some states do not allow effective access to justice in cases of breaches of occupational health and safety standards, since only the regulator can prosecute them.”

He notes shortcomings in the implementation of multilateral environmental agreements by Australia. For example, Australia is a party to the Minamata Convention on Mercury, yet its controls on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants have been limited or at times non-existent. Australia is also a party to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, but it has obtained exemptions for methyl bromide, a hazardous pesticide which does damage the ozone layer.

Orellana is critical of governance in Australia. “There can be no doubt that access to environmental information is critical to environmental decision-making and public participation. I am troubled to learn about significant delays in the processing of requests for environmental information under freedom of information laws. The issue of costs imposed on public interest organisations also stifles access to information.”

He also draws attention to the troubling draconian restrictions on the right to protest in several states. “Peaceful protests are a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of assembly, and they enable citizens to mobilise their concerns and make them visible to public authorities.” Australia’s judiciary is “strictly procedural” when it reviews government decisions. This can lead to negative environmental outcomes where political decisions do not reflect the best available scientific evidence.

The low penalties for violation of licence conditions are another concern. “[penalties] are simply absorbed as a cost of doing business, while the toxic harm is imposed upon neighbouring communities.”

“Substantive environmental standards are key to protecting the right of every person to live in a non-toxic environment.” Ambient air quality standards in Australia are less protective than in other member countries of the OECD and certain industries have received exemptions from compliance with relevant standards. “Where environmental standards are not robust, the outcome is legalised contamination.” Communities have often paid the price with premature deaths, terminal illnesses, asthma and other serious health outcomes of coal mining and coal-fired power plants. Ash dams from coal combustion also pose threats to groundwater and drinking water of local communities. Arsenic and selenium in groundwater have been reported.

In Australia limited or no information on the use of pesticides is disclosed to the public. Similarly, there is a lack of monitoring of impacts on humans of pesticide exposure. Alarmingly, certain hazardous pesticides that are banned in their country of origin are still imported. “What’s also clear is that the risks of hazardous pesticides involve not only occupational exposure of workers in the fields, but also air drift and contamination of water sources, all of which is adversely affecting local communities and aggravating the loss of biodiversity.”

“… the world needs Australia to lead on a range of toxics issues. If Australia is unable to ensure that mining does not pose toxic threats, what can we expect from other jurisdictions lacking the institutional regulatory capacity that Australia has? The expected surge in demand of transition minerals for decarbonisation makes of this an existential question for many communities,” Orellana notes.

“Similarly, the world needs Australia to succeed in its phase out of fossil fuels.”

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More