Environmental Protection Authority’s 50th Anniversary

In the late 1960s and early 1970s a new era of development and industrialisation emerged and so did the realisation that the exploitation of Western Australia’s natural resources could come at a high price.

In 1971, the first piece of Western Australian environmental protection legislation was passed – the Environmental Protection Act 1971. Dr Brian O’Brien assumed the inaugural post of director — and the EPA was born.

The EPA in pictures

The role of the EPA

EPA in education

Marking 50 years of protecting the Western Australian environment

In 1971 the mandate of the newly created Western Australian EPA was straight forward: to prevent and reduce environmental pollution and to protect the physical environment.

Inaugural Chair Dr Brian O’Brien led an Authority of three people – himself, Professor of Zoology Bert Main and barrister Philip Adams – who initially made decisions on a case-by-case basis from the Authority’s original location in Mount Street, Perth.

The Environmental Protection Act 1971 was assented to guide the EPA and also facilitated the creation of two other environmental protection bodies – the Department of Conservation and Environment and the Conservation and Environment Council. 

These early years of the EPA were navigated with limited information on ecological factors for environmental assessments and a preference for a collaborative rather than regulatory approach. Pollution and coastal and water issues were some of the key issues, along with an emerging industrial and mining sector in the State. The EPA aimed to work to three main principles: an attempt to strike a balance between conservation and development; the importance of informed public participation in environmental management and; environmental correction is more expensive than environmental protection.

Early decisions by the EPA included assessments of the Cockburn Sound, Peel Inlet and advising against a proposal to build an alumina refinery in the Swan Valley, an issue which was controversial at the time.

Fitzgerald River National Park. Picture Tourism WAAnother early, high-profile issue was the EPA’s recommendation that the Fitzgerald River Reserve be upgraded to a Class A national park.

Colin Porter took over from the inaugural Chair in 1977. The following year major environmental reviews took place that would go on to shape the State – the Yeelirrie uranium proposal, Wagerup Alumina Refinery, Dampier-Perth Natural Gas Pipeline and the North West Shelf Development Project were all assessed by the EPA.

“There are many big projects in the wind in Western Australia. They include the possibility of a nuclear power plant, the export of uranium, the expansion of the wood-chipping industry, proposed aluminium smelters, and more bauxite mining in the Darling Range near Perth.” 
CANBERRA TIMES, November 1980

As the 1980s rolled around, there were two changes in EPA leadership, this time with Philip Adams taking over in late 1980, followed by Bert Main in 1981. Discussion in the 1980-81 EPA Annual Report reiterated the EPA philosophy – that protection of the environment and development of the State were not necessarily inconsistent.

In 1984, following Australia II’s success in the America’s Cup, the EPA was asked to consider the environmental impact to the coastline of Fremantle hosting the America’s Cup defence campaign in 1986. As a result, marinas were built to relieve boating pressure from the Swan River. 

Also at this time, a 10-year study of the Peel-Harvey Estuary culminated in a recommended management strategy, including the Dawesville Cut, while a new level of assessment was introduced: Public Environmental Review (PER), which still exists today. 

Other key developments around the State which went under assessment in 1984 were the Mindarie Keys project, Sorrento Boat Harbour and Avon Valley Quarry Development.

In 1985, Barry Carbon became the new EPA Chair and led the team that introduced the Environmental Protection Act 1986. This strengthened and modernised the Act, particularly in relation to environmental assessment of development projects and pollution control.

Other features included allowing for the establishment of community advisory committees and adjusting the membership of the EPA from three to five. The Act reiterated the independence of the EPA and absorbed elements of the Clean Air Act, Noise Abatement Act and the Rights in Water and Irrigation Act.

In 1987-88, 65 projects were formally assessed by the EPA, including an ammonia-urea plant in Kwinana, the Cooljarloo Mineral Sands Project, Point Grey Project and the Integrated Petrochemical Complex in Kwinana.
Greenhouse gas became a focus of 1988, with the EPA holding a major seminar at Murdoch University on the greenhouse effect to increase public awareness of this global issue. 

‘Greenhouse 88’ conferences were held simultaneously in all major Australian cities and the EPA WA raised concerns at the conference and in its 1988-89 Annual Report about the shared responsibility for the environment and the depletion of the ozone layer. This resulted in the development of a greenhouse gas emission audit for WA to identify opportunities for emission reduction.  

In 1988, EPA reports were published on the Port Geographe Harbour Development, Fremantle Inner Harbour Deepening Project, oil exploration permit in the Exmouth Gulf and stage 2 of the Peel Inlet-Harvey Estuary Management Strategy. 

In October 1989, Dr Christine Sharp became the first woman appointed to the EPA.

“Society made the decision that it wanted development, and it wanted the environment to be protected. The approach to environmental protection embodied in the Environmental Protection Act 1986 reflected society's changing perception of itself. It was time to stop regarding society as a mass, as a unit, as a lump. It was time to stop regarding industry as a single mass.”

The 1990s brought with it a raised awareness in environment issues and a growing workload for the EPA. For the first time ever, the EPA held two open days to receive public comments on more than 80 development proposals awaiting assessment before implementing a ‘class assessment’ approach to quickly progress assessments.

In 1991, the State Government undertook a major review of environmental laws and the EPA’s first full-time deputy chairman was appointed – Charlie Welker. 

After 20 years in existence, the primary roles of the EPA are focussed on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), environmental investigations and pollution control. 

The EPA visited 3000 lakes and wetlands in 1991, dubbed ‘The Lakes Survey’ ahead of implementing an Environmental Protection Policy for the Swan Coastal Plain.

A change of headquarters to Westralia Square in 1992 coincided with the release of the Review of the EP Act for public comment. The review committee made 50 recommendations relating to the administration of the Act, in particular the establishment of a Commissioner for the Environment to hear appeals and report to the Minister. 

Assessments during 1992 included the Bunbury Harbour, Ellenbrook rezoning, Port Bouvard canals and the relocation of the Cedric Street wetland.

In 1992 the EP Act was amended, representing the first substantive changes to the Act since 1986. The amendments included the separation of the Authority’s roles of chairman and chief executive officer of the supporting public service department and the appointment of the five-person EPA by the Governor rather than the Minister.

Two years later, the start of 1994 also brought with it major amendments to the EP Act – including separating the EPA from the Department of Environmental Protection and a new chair– Dr RK (Ray) Steedman.

“Salinity is one of the most serious, if not the most serious, environmental issue facing Western Australia. It threatens the South West Agricultural Region's natural resources, conservation areas, town sites and farms. Over 1.6 million hectares of the State's most productive agriculture region is affected. lt is estimated that this figure will rise to 2.9 million hectares by 2010.”

Major issues at this time were coastal zone pressures and responses, forests, urbanisation and rangeland deterioration with reports published on the Pilbara to Goldfields Gas Pipeline, Coastal Road – Jurien to Green Head and a proposed subdivision of Jandakot agricultural area.

The next few years the EPA deliberated over a large number of diverse proposals, with many in regional areas of the State: Port Mandurah Canal Estate, Worsley Alumina Refinery, Ausi Iron Project Cape Lambert, several nickel projects, Oakajee Deepwater Port and the Coral Coast Resort at Maud’s Landing.

In 1997 there was another change in the leadership of the EPA, with Dr Bernard Bowen appointed Chair.

Growth of the petroleum industry began to emerge as a key issue, with the EPA deliberating over both the Gorgon offshore gas field project and Woodside offshore petroleum project in 1997.

The end of the 1990s saw the global issue of greenhouse gases on the ozone layer continue to be of concern to the EPA, with the issue being raised in the last two Annual Reports of the decade.

The Ord River Irrigation Area proposal, mining proposals including the Mt Margaret Nickel Cobalt project and Lake Lefroy Gold Mine in Kambalda and an expansion of the Woodside LNG project were all major considerations of the EPA at this time.

“WA is the only State where ‘Greenhouse’ is recognised as an environmental factor for the purpose of environmental impact assessment.”

The early 2000s were steady and busy – leadership remained the same and there were ongoing reviews and deliberations regarding forest management, strategic assessments, judging environmental acceptability and best practice environmental management.

By 2002, an increase in international commodity demand led to an increased environmental impact assessment workload, with more and more mining projects being proposed. At this time, the EPA also reported many staff being “poached” by mining companies keen to get more environmental impact assessment expertise. 

During these years, the EPA delivered assessments of the Gorgon gas project on Barrow Island, Austeel Iron Ore Mine, Hope Downs Iron Ore Mine, Ludlow Titanium Minerals Mine and the Koolyanobbing Iron Ore Expansion. 

Mining and resource projects continued to dominate much of the 2000s, along with the Fremantle Ports Outer Harbour Project.

In November 2007 the EPA welcomed a new chair – Dr Paul Vogel – who led a review of EIA practices, processes and policies, working towards a more risk-based and outcome-focused approach.

The EPA considered a number of proposed power station developments this year. These included four coal-fired proposals in the Collie area and a natural gas fired proposal at Kwinana.

By 2010-11, economic growth from a thriving mining and development industry had resulted in 416 referrals and 46 assessment reports worth a combined $45 billion. 

Key projects assessed during this period were the Wheatstone LNG project, Tropicana Gold Project, Marillana Iron Ore Project, Happy Valley Titanium Minerals Project and the Solomon Iron Ore Project. 

In early 2011, the EPA published its recommendation on the Vasse Coal Proposal, which was aimed at preserving the unique environmental values of the Margaret River region. The EPA reported that the proposal was environmentally unacceptable, a view supported by the Minister for Environment and resulting in the project not proceeding. 

The immense number of mining and resource projects now underway in the State led the EPA to begin considering the cumulative impacts of development in the Pilbara. 

In August 2014, under section 16(e) of the EPAct, the EPA published Cumulative environmental impacts of development in the Pilbara region. The key recommendation of this advice was that a whole-of-Government strategic plan for biodiversity conservation in the Pilbara be developed.

The following year, an EPA assessment on a proposal to mine a significant Banded Iron Formation (BIF) in the northern Goldfields was found to be environmentally unacceptable.

In early 2015, the EPA’s report on the Jackson 5 and Bungalbin East Iron Ore Project by Polaris Metals Pty Ltd recommended the proposal not proceed, due to the impact on the ancient BIF landforms of the Helena-Aurora Range. Two years later, the EPA again found the proposal to be environmentally unacceptable, along with a separate proposal from Sinosteel Midwest Corporation to expand its Blue Hills Muganda East project in the same area.

Late in 2017, the State Government supported the EPA’s position to protect the Helena-Aurora Range from mining and went one step further by committing to converting the area to an A-class reserve. 

In November 2015, Dr Tom Hatton replaced Dr Vogel as Chair and in his first year a judicial challenge to EPA advice regarding the Roe 8 freight link prompted an independent review of the policy framework.

Led by Peter Quinlan SC, the independent governance review recommended a radical overhaul of the EPA’s policy framework, saying it needs to be simplified.  

By 2016, the EPA was expanding its focus on several fronts - how to better capture and share environmental data through assessments, how to increase public engagement with the development of advice and how to better streamline the guidelines and procedures framework.

Greenhouse gas emissions, oil and gas industry and infrastructure on the Burrup and the pressure on the environment from an increasing population were the key issues in 2018.

One of the EPA’s major achievements this year was the recognition we received from the International Association for Impact Assessment for pioneering work and leadership in promoting best practice in impact assessments. 

Today, the role of the EPA uses its best endeavours to prevent, control and abate pollution and environmental harm.

The Authority now comprises five members appointed by the Governor on the recommendation of the Minister for Environment. The EPA remains independent and its advice to Government is public. The current EPA chair is Professor Matthew Tonts, who began his five-year term in January 2021. He joined Deputy Chair Lee McIntosh and board members Professor Fiona Haslam McKenzie, Glen McLeod and Dr Jenny Pope.

The EPA’s functions are broad and include conducting environmental impact assessments, preparing statutory policies for environmental protection, preparing and publishing guidelines for managing environmental impacts, and providing strategic advice to the Minister for Environment.

This 50th anniversary year is a significant milestone for the EPA as it continues the important task of preserving the Western Australian environment for future generations.


Photo credits

Photo 1: Fitzgerald River National Park. Picture Tourism WA
Photo 2: Gungurra or silver Princess (Eucalyptus caesia) in the Avon Valley. Picture Tourism WA
Photo 3: North West Cape. Picture Tourism WA
Photo 4: Jurien Bay. Picture Tourism WA
Photo 5: Ord River. Picture Tourism WA
Photo 6: Burrup Peninsula. Picture Tourism WA
Photo 7: Current EPA Chair Professor Matthew Tonts and Deputy Chair Lee McIntosh.