Meeting environmental obligations and duties

The Environmental Protection Act 1994 (EP Act) lists obligations and duties to prevent environmental harm, nuisances and contamination.

The two primary duties that apply to everyone in Queensland are:

  • general environmental duty – which means a person must not carry out any activity that causes or is likely to cause environmental harm, unless measures to prevent or minimise the harm have been taken; and
  • duty to notify of environmental harm – to inform the administering authority and landowner or occupier when an incident has occurred that may have caused or threatens serious or material environmental harm.
    • A ‘person’ includes a body of persons, whether incorporated or unincorporated.

What is environmental harm

Environmental harm is a serious impact, or potentially serious impact on an environmental value defined under the EP Act. This includes environmental nuisance (eg. odour, some types of noise etc). The serious impact can be either temporary or permanent, may occur on a small to significant scale and may differ significantly in the duration or frequency of impact.

Environmental harm may be caused by an activity directly or indirectly as a result of the activity, or from the combined effects of the activity and other activities or factors.

Environmental harm becomes unlawful when it exceeds the thresholds of nuisance, serious, or material environmental harm.

  • Section 15 of the EP Act provides a definition of environmental nuisance.
  • Section 16 & 17 of the EP Act provides a definition of material and serious environmental harm respectively which includes monetary value thresholds.

These thresholds have not previously increased since 1994.

The EP Act was amended on 5 April 2023 to change the monetary threshold amounts for material and serious environmental harm.

The increased threshold amounts are based on an annual indexation of the current thresholds and will be indexed annually to ensure that they align with contemporary costs.

  • The first increased indexation of these figures will occur on 1 July 2023. For information on annual indexation visit Fees and services.

The department will publish on this page the financial year increased indexation of these figures.

Change to environmental harm thresholds Former (prior to 05/04/2023) 5 April 2023 – 30 June 2023 1 July 23 – 30 June 2024
s.16 Material Environmental Harm  $5,000 $10,000 ($10,000 + CPI)
s.17 Serious Environmental Harm* $50,000 $100,000 ($100,000 + CPI)

*Determining whether harm is trivial or negligible requires the context of the harm to be considered, and the potential long-term effects of the harm. Section 17 of the EP Act provides that “serious environmental harm” is harm:

  • that causes actual or potential harm to an environmental value that is irreversible, of a high impact or widespread, or causes actual or potential harm to an area of high conservation value or of special significance; or
  • causes actual or potential loss or damage to property of more than $100,000 (post 1 July + CPI); or results in costs of more than $100,000 (post 1 July + CPI) to prevent or minimise the harm and to rehabilitate the environment.

What is general environmental duty

The Environmental Protection Act 1994 (the Act) states that we all have a general environmental duty (GED). This means that we are all responsible for the actions we take that affect the environment.

We must not carry out any activity that causes or is likely to cause environmental harm unless we take all reasonable and practicable measures to prevent or minimise the harm.

For example, we must not burn rubbish in our backyards (unless permitted by local government), pour oil and other wastes down the stormwater drain or cause unreasonable noise.

To decide how to meet your general environmental duty, you need to think about the:

  • The nature of the harm or potential harm—for example, how severe is the potential environmental harm?
  • Sensitivity of the environment you are operating in—for example, are you operating near a protected area, waterway or sensitive animal or plant habitat?
  • Current state of technical knowledge for the activity—for example, what is the current best practice for the activity? Is the activity a notifiable activity? For more information on notifiable activities refer to Notifiable activities.
  • Likelihood of possible measures being successful—for example, how successful are different measures you could put into place likely to be in preventing or minimising environmental harm?
  • Financial implications of taking different measures—for example, will taking certain prevention measures instead of others mean your activity is not commercially viable?

As of 1 July 2023 GED also includes a separate and distinct scenario regarding chemical use, risk management measures for storage, handling and disposal in support of the national Industrial Chemicals Environmental Management Standard (IChEMS) framework. This can be found in section 319A of the EP Act.

This change supports implementation of the national framework, will deliver more consistent regulation, and make it easier for industry to choose less harmful chemicals.

Scheduling decisions will be occurring from early 2023 to take effect from 1 July 2023, with the Commonwealth responsible for making scheduling decisions.

There is no specific offence for failing to fulfil your general environmental duty, however if you cause environmental harm, and fail in your general environmental duty, the EP Act also sets out enforcement tools that can be used when offences or acts of non-compliance are identified by an administrating authority to bring you into compliance with the Act. These enforcement tools, outlined further on the compliance guidelines page, include issuing an environmental protection order or issuing direction and clean-up notices.

Demonstrating compliance with general environmental duty can be used as a defence for offences relating to causing unlawful environmental harm. If a person can show that the harm occurred while carrying out an activity that is considered lawful, apart from this Act, and they fulfilled their general environmental duty, then they cannot be found guilty of causing unlawful environmental harm.

Duty to notify of environmental incidents

The duty to notify of environmental harm is a legal requirement that ensures that the administering authority and other relevant persons are made aware of incidents that may have caused or threaten serious or material environmental harm.

The duty to notify of environmental harm—guideline (PDF, 356.4KB) provides details of:

  • who the duty to notify applies to
  • when the duty to notify applies
  • the timeframe for notifying
  • who is to be notified
  • how to notify of environmental incidents.

In addition to the duty to notify the administering authority of incidents that cause or threaten serious or material environmental harm, there is a specific duty to notify for anyone carrying out a resource activity other than mining (i.e. a geothermal activity, a greenhouse gas storage activity or a petroleum activity licensed by an environmental authority).

For more information about environmental notifications and reports for petroleum and gas activities visit the Business Queensland website.

Notification of an incident

Notification to the administering authority must occur generally within 24 hours of the person responsible for notifying becoming aware of an incident that may have caused or threatens serious or material environmental harm.

Written notice to the department (as the administering authority)

The Duty to notify of environmental harm—form (DOCX, 199.3KB) should be used for providing written notice to the department when a person becomes aware of an incident that may have caused or threatens serious or material environmental harm.

If written notice is required to be given to the occupiers or registered owners of affected land, the person responsible for giving that written notice can use this form as a guide for what information to give, or alternatively use this form to provide to the owners/occupiers of the affected land.

Phoning the department’s Pollution Hotline

In addition to providing the written notice, if a person becomes aware of an event which has caused or threatens serious or material environmental harm, the person should immediately call the Pollution Hotline on 1300 130 372 and report the event. Reporting the event through the Pollution Hotline allows the department to take necessary measures to prevent further harm and to mitigate the effects of an incident or event.

In addition to notifying the department, it is considered best practice to notify the council for your local government area.

More information

If you need more information about the Environmental Protection Act 1994 or environmental protection policies, contact your administering authority.

Queensland legislation is available online.