Environment Law in the Northern Territory

Pollution and waste from mining, petroleum operations and pipelines

Pollution and waste from the mining industry is regulated under different laws depending on where the pollution occurs.

  • Pollution and waste on mining sites is regulated by the Mining Management Act.  The Mining Management Act also has one offence for releasing waste or a contaminant contrary to a mining management plan.  This is an offence under the Mining Management Act, whether or not the waste or contaminant occurs on or outside a mining site.
  • Pollution and waste within 1km of petroleum operations is regulated by the Petroleum Act.
  • Pollution and waste within 1km of energy pipelines is regulated by the Energy Pipelines Act.

 The environmental offences under these Acts do not apply to ozone-depleting substances.

Pollution or waste caused by mining, petroleum or every pipeline operations that occurs outside a mining site, or extends beyond 1 kilometre from petroleum operations or pipelines, is regulated by the the Waste Management and Pollution Control Act.  

Pollution from mining

Offences and penalties

The Mining Management Act has a number of offences for causing harm to the environment or an environmental nuisance on a mining site.

Environment means land, air, water, organisms and ecosystems on a mining site. It includes the well-being of humans; structures made or modified by humans; amenity values of the site; and economic, cultural and social conditions.

A mining site means an area of land in which a person holds a mining interest or on which mining activities are being, or have been, carried out or that is declared by the Minister to be a mining site.

If pollution or waste flows or occurs outside a mining site as a result of mining activities, the Waste Management and Pollution Control Act will apply.

The environmental offences under the Mining Management Act have four requirements:

  • A person acts or fails to act (either intentionally or not)
  • The act or failure to act results in a breach of an environmental obligation under the Mining Management Act
  • Serious or material environmental harm or an environmental nuisance at the mining site results from the action or failure to act
  • The person intends the result to happen or is aware that it will happen in the ordinary course of events or is aware that there is a substantial risk that the results will happen and it is unjustifiable for the person to take the risk.

The offences therefore require a breach of one of the environmental obligations under the Mining Management Actand harm caused to the environment and some degree of knowledge (or what a reasonable person would be expected to know) on the part of the offender.

The environmental obligations under the Mining Management Actmost relevant to pollution are:

  • Every person on a mining site has an obligation to take care of the environment
  • A person must not wilfully or recklessly cause environmental harm on a mining site or interfere with or misuse anything provided on a mining site for environmental protection
  • A person on a mining site must follow all reasonable directions given by the operator about preventing environmental harm
  • The owner of a mining site who has appointed an operator for the site must provide the operator with all relevant information available to the owner that may assist the operator to establish and implement an appropriate environment protection management system
  • The owner of a mining site who has appointed an operator for the site must ensure that the operator is competent and provides adequate resources to establish and implement the environment protection management system
  • The operator for a mining site must ensure that the environmental impact of mining activities is limited to what is necessary for the establishment, operation and closure of the site
  • A worker must keep himself or herself informed about, and comply with, work instructions and procedures applying to the worker that are included in the management system for the site

The environmental offences under the Mining Management Acthave penalties divided into four levels set by the Environmental Offences and Penalties Act, which relate to the level of environmental harm caused by the offence. Environmental harm is any harm or adverse effect on the environment. It also includes any potential harm (including the risk of harm and future harm) or potential adverse affect of any degree or duration on the environment and includes environmental nuisance.

Level 1 environmental offences are the most serious. These attract high fines or imprisonment if a person is found guilty of the offence. Level 4 environmental offences are the least serious. They are punishable by lesser fines.

Serious environmental harm is the highest level of environmental harm under the Act. It includes environmental harm that:

  • is irreversible or otherwise of a high impact or on a wide scale;
  • damages an aspect of the environment that is of a high conservation value, high cultural value or high community value or is of special significance;
  • results or is likely to result in more than $50,000 or the prescribed amount (whichever is greater) being spent in taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the environmental harm or rehabilitate the environment; or
  • results in actual or potential loss or damage to the value of more than $50,000 or the prescribed amount (whichever is greater).

Material environmental harm is the second highest level of harm. It means environmental harm that:

  • is not trivial or negligible in nature;
  • consists of an environmental nuisance of a high impact or on a wide scale;
  • results, or is likely to result, in not more than $50,000 or the prescribed amount (whichever is greater) being spent in taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the environmental harm or rehabilitate the environment; or
  • results in actual or potential loss or damage to the value of not more than $50,000 or the prescribed amount (whichever is greater).

There is also an offence for causing an environmental nuisance. An environmental nuisance is an adverse effect on the amenity of land caused by noise, smoke, dust, fumes or odour or an unsightly or offensive condition on the land.

Enforcement of mining pollution offences

Enforcement of offences under the Mining Management Act may only be commenced by the Chief Executive Officer of the Department of Mines and Energy or with his or her written approval.  Members of the public may bring private prosecutions provided they obtain consent of Chief Executive Officer of the Department of Mines and Energy. Prosecution proceedings must be commenced within 12 months after the day on which Chief Executive Officer first became aware of the commission of the alleged offence.

Pollution from petroleum activities

Offences and penalties

Under the Northern Territory Petroleum Act there are several environmental offences that  relate to pollution and waste within 1km of a pipeline.  It is an offence to release contaminants and waste materials in circumstances where serious or material environmental harm or environmental nuisance is caused and the person who caused the harm knew or could reasonably be expected to have known that the harm would occur.

Contaminants under the Petroleum Act are solids, liquids, gases or any combination of those substances, including noise, smoke, dust, fumes, odour or heat.

Waste material means a solid, liquid or gas or a mixture of those substances that is left over, surplus or is an unwanted by-product.  Serious and material environmental harm and environmental nuisance have the same meaning as under the Waste Management and Pollution Control Act.

The penalties for the offences relate to the level of environmental harm which has been caused. There are four levels of penalties set by the Environmental Offences and Penalties Act. There are more severe penalties where the offence was committed intentionally.

The most serious environmental offence under the Petroleum Act is where a person during the conduct of a petroleum operation intentionally does an act, or fails to do an act, that causes the release of a contaminant or waste material on, above or under land if:

  • he or she knows, or ought reasonably be expected to know, that serious environmental harm or material environmental harm will or might result from the release of the contaminant or waste material; and
  • the contaminant or waste material causes serious environmental harm to land all of which is within one kilometre of the site where the contaminant is released.

There are similar offences for causing serious or material harm without intent and for causing an environmental nuisance.  There are defences for these offences.

Enforcement of petroleum pollution offences

Prosecutions for offences under the Petroleum Act may only be commenced with the written consent Minister for Mines and Energy. Members of the public may therefore bring private prosecutions against offenders, provided that they obtain the consent of the Minister of Mines and Energy. Proceedings may be brought at any time.

Pollution from energy pipelines

Offences and penalties

Pollution and waste from energy pipelines are regulated by the Northern Territory Energy Pipelines Act. An energy pipeline means a pipe or system of pipes that are used or intended to be used for energy producing hydrocarbons.  It includes structures that protect or support a pipeline, loading terminals, works and buildings.  It does not apply to pipelines which do not need to be licenced, or to pipelines regulated by the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act or to pipelines where the hydrocarbons will be solely used on the same land as the pipeline is constructed.

The Energy Pipelines Act has a number of environmental offences which prohibit the release of contaminants and waste material from pipeline operations without an authorisation. Contaminants are as solids, liquids or gases or any combination of these including noise, odour and heat. Waste material means a solid, liquid or gas or a mixture of those substances, that is left over, surplus or is an unwanted by-product.

The offences apply to pollution and waste released within one kilometre of the pipeline. Pollution from pipelines which has spread beyond 1 kilometre is regulated under the Waste Management and Pollution Control Act.

The penalties for the environmental offences under the Energy Pipelines Act are set by reference to the level of environmental harm which has been caused. There are four levels of penalties set by the Environmental Offences and Penalties Act. There are more severe penalties where the offence was committed intentionally.

The most serious environmental offence under the Energy Pipelines Act is where a person during the conduct of a pipeline operation intentionally does an act, or fails to do an act, that causes the release of a contaminant or waste from a pipeline if:

(a) he or she knows, or ought reasonably be expected to know, that serious environmental harm or material environmental harm will or might result from the release of the contaminant or waste material; and

(b) the contaminant or waste material causes serious environmental harm to land all of which is within one kilometre of the pipeline.

There are similar offences for causing serious or material harm without intent and for causing an environmental nuisance.

Enforcement of pollution offences relating to energy pipelines

The Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy is responsible for administering the Energy Pipelines Act and Energy Pipelines Regulations. As these laws do not restrict who may bring a prosecution for offences, members of the public may bring private prosecutions against offenders.  There are defences to prosecution for offences.