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Bitter pill to swallow

  Sunshine Sugar’s chief executive officer, Chris Connors, has questioned the NSW Environmental Protection Authority’s (EPA) application of the act after it fined the NSW sugar industry’s peak corporate entity. The EPA announced the fine in a media release titled, ‘EPA fines NSW Sugar Milling Co-Operative $15,000’. “The penalty notice was issued in relation to an uncontrolled discharge of approximately 1,000 litres of caustic solution into the Richmond River on 8 September 2015,” the media release states. The EPA’s north coast region manager, Brett Nudd, said that the sugar company’s systems had failed to prevent an uncontrolled discharge occurring during an evaporator cleaning operation at the company’s Broadwater sugar mill. “While the discharge to Richmond River had no immediately identifiable environmental impacts, this is a disappointing result as the EPA had issued an official caution to the company for a similar incident that occurred in November 2014 at its Harwood premises,” Mr Nudd said. The EPA’s media release states that Sunshine Sugar submitted an incident report following the incident “confirming that a number of critical monitoring and control systems had either not been in place or were incorrectly implemented”. However, Mr Connors’s opinion on how the incident unfolded differed from the EPA’s. “The solution that was spilt was only a five per cent caustic mix-in with 1,000 litres of water and then immediately diluted into 8,000 litres of cooling water,” he said. “The EPA acknowledged in the discussions that we had on this issue that there was no environmental impact because the spill was minimal and significantly diluted. “Effectively, if we hadn’t reported the incident the world would have been none the wiser.” Mr Nudd said: “Despite the company’s commitment to improved system management and operator training following the first incident, it failed to ensure appropriate controls were implemented across its three premises resulting in the most recent incident.” Whereas Mr Connors said: “The EPA acknowledged that our systems and follow-up approach in addressing the issues was very sound. “We take a lot of pride in our continuous improvement programs that are now the operational foundation of our business.” The EPA contended that, on the back of the Harwood incident, it was prompted to “issue the penalty notice to NSW Sugar Milling Co-Operative for failure to comply with a condition of its environment protection licence, which requires ‘all plant and equipment at the premises to be maintained and operated in a proper and efficient condition and manner’. “NSW Sugar Milling has advised the EPA that it has committed to a review of its maintenance and control procedures and improved staff training to ensure that there are no further recurrences in the future,” the EPA release states. “The EPA will be closely monitoring the company’s performance to assess the effectiveness of these revised procedures.” Mr Connors responded: “Whilst acknowledging there was an incident we wonder whether fining the business does anything more than put funds back into the state government’s coffers. “It will make no difference to the way we approach our responsibilities and we will continue to develop and implement systems as part of our continuous improvement programs. “Our view is the fine would have been better spent targeting those continuous improvement outcomes. “Perhaps the EPA staff are being handed rules that simply don’t allow them to deal with the real commitments that our type of business is making where without doubt there are significant and ongoing improvements.” Mr Connors said Sunshine Sugar is the only 100 per cent certified Bonsucro sugar producer in the world. He said its international sustainability certification was achieved through “significant changes in the culture and management of the environment and, for that matter, safety and employee relationships”. Bonsucro, its website states, is a global non-profit, multi-stakeholder organisation fostering the sustainability of the sugarcane sector through its leading metric-based certification scheme and its support for continuous improvement for members.