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Australia’s environment deserves real-time monitoring
Tue, 1st Dec 2020
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Australia's regulators are indirectly polluting the environment due to the adoption of a new regulatory framework. It's not the framework that's the issue, but the fact that an upgrade to monitoring technology doesn't accompany it.

The outcome of this is the creation of strict environmental laws but without the ability to detect or enforce breaches. What's the solution? The adoption of the Environmental Internet of Things (EIoT).

Under the new regulatory framework — which is outcomes-based in nature — regulators place conditions on environmental licence holders such as operators overseeing mines, factories, and landfills, to achieve positive environmental outcomes, like not polluting waterways during construction projects. The issue is that such outcomes don't specify how operators can achieve these goals.

Outcomes-based regulation has great potential as it provides freedom for businesses to innovate and develop highly effective and low-cost measures to reduce pollution. However, there is a critical challenge to be tackled.

Outcomes-based regulation only works if outcomes can be monitored effectively, but the manual sampling and analysis required under most licence conditions is simply not up to the task.

Manual monitoring cannot detect pollution on the surface or in groundwater and has the potential to spread from activities such as mining, coal seam gas production, transport and major infrastructure construction.

Outcomes-based regulation is doomed to fail without accurate and continuous monitoring. Unfortunately, the irony is that this failure is hidden by the very lack of data causing the problem in the first place.

Strict conditions provide a false sense of security

Strict outcomes-based conditions adopted during the approval of large or controversial projects present the false promise of environmental protection to the community, without adequate monitoring and accountability of performance against these conditions during operation, such conditions are worthless.

The type of outcomes-based licence conditions that are commonly associated with coal seam gas and mining projects include ‘no contaminant discharge to waters'.

Although there are innovative approaches available that can assist in managing fine particles during mining projects, there is little incentive for industry to apply these broadly, because fine sediment discharge often goes unnoticed.

Such pollution events are rarely detected or reported to regulators, and this is because manual monitoring programs are simply incapable of detecting pollutant discharges on many of these large sites.

By using real-time sensors to monitor discharge quality continuously, operators will be able to improve the efficiency of controls and assist the industry as a whole to innovate and improve controls.

Manual sampling needs to be removed

Manual monitoring requires that regulators or consultants visit sites to collect water samples. This process can involve flights and accommodation for two people, car hire, days in the field to take grab samples for analysis, or in-situ measurement of water quality with handheld probes, manual collection and tabulation of data and comparison with limits, and reporting.

The process is slow, expensive, and ineffective at detecting discharges of water pollutants like sediment-laden water from large projects unless scientists happen to be on-site during a storm. Even in the unlikely event that a scientist collects a sample during one of these pollution events, it can take weeks for a sample to be analysed, data collated, and a report prepared.

With this delay, the licence holder has little chance in understanding the cause and effect to improve the system, the opportunity to stop or minimise the pollution has passed, and the environment has been damaged, often irreparably.

The need for real-time data

To properly implement an outcomes-based regulatory framework, real-time remote monitoring is required. Regulators can trigger this transition at no cost by changing approval conditions to require the use of continuous remote monitoring, rather than through taking periodic, manual samples.

Licence holders can implement these new conditions at low or no additional cost in many circumstances by replacing infrequent manual sampling with continuous monitoring,

Through the application of IoT technologies, such as lower cost transmitters and sensors, communication, data collection and analysis platforms, the cost of transitioning to real-time monitoring is reducing yearly.

Environmental regulation as an industry is lagging in adoption of real-time monitoring, but there are examples of industries that can be looked to as demonstrating best practice.

Water resource management is powering ahead with remote monitoring in Australia, and the New South Wales government is rapidly deploying telemetry and sensors, such as water meters and dam depth sensors to measure water consumption and storage across up to 6800 licences. This is starting to provide the data needed to drive accountability on strict water licencing conditions.

Some progressive regulatory agencies, like the Queensland Department of Environment and Science, have piloted real-time monitoring projects and reported great success.  Despite these early successes, the industry still needs to progress with an agency-wide transition to real-time monitoring if the shift in approach is to succeed across the board.

The way forward

It's time for Australia's regulators to pair the adoption of modern regulatory frameworks with modern remote sensing technology, by leveraging IoT technology. In an IoT-powered regulatory framework, licence holders will understand and be able to measure and improve their pollution control devices, to achieve continuous improvement.

The continuous disclosure of environmental performance will be replaced with written reports, and regulators and operators will gain real-time insight into compliance and patterns of performance across a geographic region or market sector.

Using real-time sensors has been proven to be cost-effective in adjacent industries, and adopted by early adopters in Australia. This is not a call for the Australian environmental regulatory industry to innovate — this is a call to catch up.

If Australian regulators can pair outcomes-based regulatory frameworks with conditions requiring real-time monitoring of environmental conditions, there is an opportunity for industry and regulators alike to achieve actual protection of our air, soil and water from contamination.

Without this change, the failure of these tough environmental conditions to prevent pollution will continue to go unnoticed, until the damage to our aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems becomes noticeable. At that point, it will be too late.