Saturday, 14 February 2009

Clear a fire break, get abused in parliament

It has taken me all morning to track this down, but I remembered vaguely that some years ago, one of our electricity companies engaged a contractor to clear trees and so on from below high voltage power lines - after a bush fire knocked out part of the grid - and the contractor and managers were dragged through the courts for their trouble.

Here is an excerpt from Hansard from 21 June 2001:

The Hon. RICHARD JONES [3.58 p.m.]: I support the motion moved by the Hon. Ian Cohen for General Purpose Standing Committee No. 5 to inquire into the monumentally disastrous clearing that occurred beneath TransGrid powerlines in the Kosciuszko National Park and surrounding areas. TransGrid, the State-owned electricity supplier, has effectively cleared a 35-kilometre scar through three New South Wales national parks, the Brindabella, Namadgi and Kosciuszko, the Bimberi Nature Reserve and Bago State Forest. Nothing but dirt is left on the 60-metre-wide path; no doubt there will be grass there in the next few weeks.

TransGrid sanctioned the removal of fire fuel material beneath the 330,000 volt grid after the section automatically shut down last January during a bushfire. It shut down to prevent the power grid shorting and causing costly damage and loss of electricity along the network. Although TransGrid is entitled to ensure that its transmission lines are free from vegetation to prevent bushfires, it is not entitled to destroy every living thing in its path. Although the damage caused to flora and fauna living around the TransGrid powerline is inestimable, it is feared that tens of thousands of native animals and plants have been destroyed, or face destruction, and many waterways have been left at risk of siltation.

The Hon. IAN COHEN: No-one opposes proper bushfire control and mitigation but this is wholesale slaughter, way beyond appropriate bushfire mitigation.

The Hon. IAN MACDONALD (Parliamentary Secretary) [4.13 p.m.]: The Government shares the concerns of honourable members regarding this issue, but we believe this motion is not the way to resolve them. As we have already made clear, the Government is extremely concerned about the environmental vandalism that occurred while clearing the easements. At present the appropriate environmental regulatory agencies are investigating the matter, and we should allow them to conduct their investigations as a precursor to any prosecutions that may occur. The chief executive officer of TransGrid has assured the Minister for Forestry that all land clearing in the area has stopped, with remediation work the only priority and activity. TransGrid is working to remediate the site as quickly and as efficiently as possible. As part of the remediation of the easements, all dead trees are being removed from waterways and bush to ensure that they do not further damage remaining vegetation. The area is being contoured to stop water running down the easements and carrying silt into the river, and silt fences and hay bales are being used to secure the site. This work is being carried out in consultation with the environmental agencies, and a long-term rehabilitation plan is being prepared.

The Minister has also spoken to TransGrid about reviewing its procedures to ensure that this sort of incident never happens again. This process will include appointing a dedicated environmental liaison officer in the southern region. The Government is very concerned about what has happened. That is why the Minister for Energy has made a report available. However, regardless of the outcomes in that report, it should be absolutely clear that the Government is keen to ensure that any prosecutions by the relevant regulatory agencies proceed as smoothly as possible. This is the Government's key focus. This Government expects all of its agencies to comply with all environmental requirements. If they do not, they can expect to be prosecuted like any other organisation or individual. We believe this process should be supported.

A Parliamentary committee investigated this incident, and their report is available on line.

In general terms, the submissions were concerned with ensuring that: remedial action was taken to repair and regenerate the damaged land areas; the responsible parties were identified and subjected to the available penalties and made responsible for all remediation costs, and that procedures be put in place so that land-clearing of this nature never occurred again.
That report includes the usual feel-good fluff:

TransGrid has liaised with the NSW EPA regarding the status of work in NSW, including the submission of a Rehabilitation Plan 29 June 2001. The rehabilitation plan was prepared by independent specialists following consultation with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, State Forests and the performance of archaeological surveys involving local aboriginal groups.

Buried on page 63 of Transgrid's annual report for 2002/2003 can be found this statement:

It should, however, be noted that TransGrid was the defendant in two sets of proceedings arising out of environmental incidents in the south of the State in early 2001. The Environment Protection Authority prosecuted TransGrid in the Land and Environment Court on four counts under Section 120 of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 of causing waters to be polluted, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service prosecuted TransGrid in the Downing Centre Local Court on two counts under Clause 15 of the National Parks and Wildlife (Land Management) Regulation 1995 of damaging vegetation in a park and two counts under Section 57 of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 of picking vegetation in a nature reserve. TransGrid pleaded guilty to all counts and was convicted on all counts. The Land and Environment Court imposed penalties totalling $80,000 and an order for $50,000 prosecution costs. The Local Court imposed fines totalling $3,500 and an order for $236 court costs.

The report is worth flicking through quickly, because almost every page has something to say about how Transgrid is protecting the environment etc. They clearly had to pay a huge penance in addition to the court fines.

From the ACT Hansard:
MRS DUNNE (11.32): Mr Speaker, this bill incorporates a number of important amendments to the Nature Conservation Act 1980 which have come about as a result of what might be called the Transgrid nastiness in 2000. In 2000, utility contractors contracted by Transgrid did a whole range of clearing under their power lines through Brindabella National Park and Namadgi National Park. In doing so they cut a 400 to 500-metre wide swathe through some tens of kilometres of Namadgi National Park and Brindabella National Park, which caused a huge amount of environmental damage.

Transgrid actually fessed up to what they did and came to the party by providing money for compensation and for regenerating the area. But as a result of this process, it was realised that there were deficiencies in the ACT's Nature Conservation Act. For the most part, people envisaged that damage to vegetation would be a case of somebody cutting down one, two or three trees, not tens of square kilometres of damage, as was the case with the Transgrid clearing under the power lines.

These amendments to the Nature Conservation Act, which the opposition supports, will ensure that unlicensed clearing of native vegetation in a reserved area or the damaging of land in a reserved area is, with certain exemptions, illegal. A whole range of new offences relate to the removal without a licence of rock, soil, sand, stone and similar substances. The legislation will also ensure that destruction that is allowed is in accordance with the provisions of part 6 of the land act; or in relation to a management plan; or in accordance with the bushfire fuel management plan; or is necessary to avoid imminent risk of serious harm to persons.

Generally, I believe that these changes are good, welcome and address the problems that we encountered because we now create the notion of not just damage but serious damage and material damage, which are important gradations that fit in with changes in the criminal code.

I commend the government for bringing forth this amendment and also a concomitant amendment to the Environment Protection Act, which requires government agencies to report on damage. I think that this is a good step forward. We will be supporting these amendments and we will be supporting the bill in principle.

And from the ABC:

An electricity company that bulldozed 35 kilometres of the Namadgi National Park in ACT will pay $350,000 compensation.

TransGrid cleared the area without authority early last year to make way for new power lines.

The compensation is an out of court settlement, with $120,000 to pay for ongoing monitoring of the damaged area and the remaining $230,000 to be spent on ACT environmental community projects.

ACT Urban Services Minister Bill Wood says the Government has also strengthened environmental legislation to prevent another similar incident.

"There were procedures in place before," Mr Wood said.

"There are even more rigorous requirements in place now, it will have to be signed off very clear before anything else is done, before any other routine work is done."

It would not surprise me if someone at Transgrid got the sack over all this. I hope they are sitting at home today, having a beer and feeling well vindicated.


Margo's Maid said...

A few of these wouldn'nt have gone astray in Vic, BOAB.

For all the hand wringing, it's amazing how quickly forest regrows - I bet there is little sign these days that the clearances were ever there.

Anonymous said...

unfortunatly the boofheads in local government who inflict these obstructions to people like the guy who was fined $50,000 for cutting a fire break on his property believe they are un-accountable, maybe they will be soon.