Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Pulp Friction: Turnbull under the Gunns

After earlier indicating the Government would not oppose a controversial Tasmanian pulp mill development, federal Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull now appears to have had a change of heart. Yesterday Turnbull reiterated he had not yet granted approval for the $2 billion project slated for development in the Tamar Valley winegrowing and tourism region in northwest Tasmania. Turnbull said he was “not unsympathetic” to calls to shift the mill to an alternative site at Hampshire, near Burnie, about 100km west.

The proposal has been the subject of a high-profile campaign to stop the project altogether. The campaign is led by prominent businessman and close friend of John Howard, Geoffrey Cousins. At a cost of $100,000, Cousins has sent 50,000 copies of a critical magazine article to households in the electorates of Turnbull and his Labor counterpart Peter Garrett. The 8500 word article is Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan’s Out of Control: The Tragedy of Tasmania's Forests, an assessment of the destruction of old-growth forests and the influence of the logging company and builder of the proposed mill, Gunns Ltd, on the state Government.

A report by Sweco Pic (pdf) on the massive chemical pulp mill assessed the project as meeting 92 per cent of the Tasmanian Government environment emission limit guidelines. Non-compliances were found in six areas: nitrous oxide emissions, the lack of a plan for managing spills and leakages, the use of unacceptable technology in the production of bleached chemicals, the TRS level in the ambient air will exceed design criteria, an incorrect ratio of the stack to the recovery boiler, and the water quality may not meet standards.

Despite the report, the Federal Government last week gave a “heavily conditional” draft environmental approval for the mill. Turnbull said at the time it could receive formal approval as soon as September. He also invited public comment until the end of August. "I have an open mind, I have not made a final decision, in fact I have not made any decisions," Turnbull told reporters last Monday.

Environmental groups have strongly opposed the proposal. The Wilderness Society gave three reasons for their opposition. They say full consideration of the impacts on Tasmania's native forests and wildlife habitat has not been carried out; an independent hydrographical assessment of the flow and dispersal of effluent in Bass Strait is yet to be undertaken; and no approval should be given that allows discharge of these poisonous chemicals such as dioxins and other persistent organic pollutants into Bass Strait. Vica Bayley, Forest Campaigner for The Wilderness Society Tasmania said there is a “sweetheart deal” between Gunns and the government to fast-track approval.

The Tasmanian government has been accused of attempting to bypass state environmental approval processes to ensure the project gets the nod. The proposal still needs to go through both Tasmanian houses of parliament as well as getting federal approval. Gunns’ CEO John Gay told the Hobart Mercury yesterday he is "95 per cent certain" construction will begin in the Tamar Valley next week.

Gunns Ltd
is Australia’s largest native forest logging company and the biggest hardwood-chip company in the world. It owns 185,000 hectares of freehold land and manages in excess of 110,000 hectares of plantations. The company employs about 1700 people and has a turnover of approximately $700 million. The company was founded in 1875 by the brothers John and Thomas Gunn and now operates four woodchip export ports in Tasmania.

In 2005, former federal Labor leader Mark Latham claimed Tasmanian Labor premier Paul Lennon was in the pocket of the forestry industry. Latham’s forestry policy was widely blamed for the loss of the Tasmanian Labor seats of Bass and Braddon at the 2004 election. Latham was unequivocal in blaming Lennon. "I think the issue down there is that the company, the timber industry, there runs the state," he said. "They run the state Labor Government, they run Lennon, and the industry brokered all these things and old Lennon there, he wouldn't scratch himself unless the guy who heads up Gunns told him to."

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