EPA chief Barry Buffier: 'Most powerful' official in NSW, Labor says

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By Peter Hannam

Originally published: Sydney Morning Herald online, 24 November 2014, 5:09pm.

The head of the Environment Protection Agency, Barry Buffier, is the "most powerful public servant in NSW" because of weak oversight from the government, said Labor's deputy leader Luke Foley.

Mr Foley told the upper house inquiry into the EPA's performance that Mr Buffier's role as both chief executive and chairman of the agency was "truly unique" among the 300 public service agencies in the state.

"The [environment] minister is handcuffed under the act. The board exercises no governance role in overseeing the work of you as chief executive officer and the work of senior executives," Mr Foley told Mr Buffier at the inquiry. "Are you in effect the most powerful public servant in NSW because of the provisions of this act?"

Mr Buffier denied his dual roles as CEO and chairman made him "untouchable", adding that environment minister Rob Stokes was responsible for his performance reviews.

"To imply that the EPA is absolutely independent ... is not correct," Mr Buffier told the inquiry.

The EPA has drawn criticism from environmental groups for failing to act quickly when alerted to issues such as leakage from a pond containing produced water from Santos's coal seam gas operations in the Pilliga. The eventual fine of $1500 despite the seepage triggering raised levels of uranium and other heavy metals in nearby groundwater stoked further anger.

Mr Stokes defended the EPA governance, saying that the agency had "been subsumed and degraded" under the previous Labor governments.

"It went from being a watchdog to the lapdog of the Labor government," Mr Stokes said. "It lost its independence and was given new responsibilities but no new resources."

The government had increased its annual funding by $25 million to $142 million over the past two years, Mr Stokes said. It had also raised penalties 10-fold to deter breeches of environmental laws.

The EPA's Mr Buffier said the agency is seeking about $5 million to cope with its extended responsibilities to ensure compliance with licence conditions of the gas industry, including coal seam gas. The authority's role was expanded by the Baird government earlier this month.

The EPA chief said the authority had to be "vigilant to ensure there is no regulatory capture" from any of the main stakeholders, ranging from business to government and environmental groups.

"Over half of EPA staff have been trained by ICAC on ethical and probity issues including regulatory capture," Mr Buffier told the inquiry.

Originally published as: EPA chief Barry Buffier: 'Most powerful' official in NSW, Labor says