Vissershok Farm: Changes could also cut off the publics legal right to influence decisions concerning activities that would affect the environment and residents living nearby.

Cape Town - Proposed changes to national environmental laws will have far-reaching effects – including paving the way for companies to sidestep environmental laws and buy themselves out of criminal prosecution.

Changes could also cut off the public’s legal right to influence decisions concerning activities that would affect the environment and residents living nearby.

These were some of the submissions made in the Western Cape Legislature on Tuesday on the National Environmental Management Laws Second Amendment Bill.

Robyn Hugo of the Centre for Environmental Rights said section 24 (g) of the National Environmental Management Act (Nema) had been intended to be in place for six months only while the authorities moved from the National Environmental Act of 1989 to Nema. It allowed companies and developers that had not got the required environmental authorisation to apply for authorisation afterwards, and pay a penalty.

It had since “morphed into a monster” with a range of consequences that undermined the environmental management system of which it formed part.

“This has been a thorn in the flesh of a wide variety of stakeholders... The authorities and courts are extremely unlikely to order the demolition of illegal construction, while the fines are not significant enough to be a deterrent and are well below the cost of doing an environmental impact assessment (EIA),” Hugo said.

Instead of doing away with this tricky section, the amendments proposed to expand it to include waste and air quality legislation. The section had been abused by companies who budgeted for fines and who then “buy themselves out of prosecution – and cheaply”.

The Department of Environmental Affairs had itself seen a trend of violators budgeting for the fine and then going ahead with the development without environmental authorisation.

The legislation should be amended to read that the payment of a fine shall not indemnify the companies from criminal liability.

Angela Andrews of the Legal Resources Centre urged the province’s standing committee on agriculture and environmental planning to recommend to the National Council of Provinces that some of the proposed changes be removed from the national bill or, failing that, that there be full public hearings in each province on the proposed amendments.

Andrews said the bill differed substantially from its predecessors. Changes had been made after the public had had a chance to comment earlier this year. Now there were clauses that gave the minister of environment “excessive discretion” to do away with EIAs in certain cases. While Andrews agreed that EIAs should be more efficient, it was “no good to throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

“We’ve been able to interrogate some claims made by some industries and... found that some of the industries were not as clean as they claimed.” - Cape Times