Pulp firm set loose in Tasmania's old forests

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2007, 12:00am

The Australian government yesterday approved a controversial Tasmanian timber pulp mill that critics say will devastate the island state's forests and pollute the environment.

Environment minister Malcolm Turnbull gave the A$2 billion (HK$13.72 billion) project the green light, but imposed what he said were strict regulations. 'These are the toughest environmental conditions ever imposed on a pulp mill anywhere in world.'

But environmental groups said the 48 conditions, double the previous number imposed by the government, were 'a joke'. They said that regardless of guarantees on air and water quality, the mill will devour 7 million tonnes of timber from Tasmania's untouched 'old growth' forests.

The plant, to be built in the Tamar Valley in the north of the island state by timber giant Gunns, has also run into fierce opposition from the region's tourism industry, farmers and vineyard owners. Fishermen fear it will pollute the waters of Bass Strait, the channel between Tasmania and mainland Australia, compromising the region's reputation for high quality scallops and lobsters.

Award-winning Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan said the drawn-out approval process between Gunns and the government had been marked by 'a level of deceit that has stunned even Tasmanians'.

Opinion polls have shown that a majority of Tasmanians oppose the pulp mill, and it is likely to be a key issue at the coming federal election.

But Mr Turnbull said he granted approval on the basis of recommendations from the country's chief scientific officer, Jim Peacock.

The level of dioxins allowed to be discharged into the sea would be four times more stringent than previously planned, Mr Turnbull said.

'The maximum and trigger levels will be dramatically lower than anywhere else in the world, dramatically lower than world's best practice.'

And the federal government will appoint an inspector to make sure the conditions are being met. If effluent levels are exceeded, the mill will be shut down. Gunns welcomed the decision as the company's shares surged about 10 per cent.

Chief executive John Gay claimed the firm had designed 'a world's best-practice pulp mill'.

He said the project had been subject to 'a most vexatious and dishonest campaign of opposition'.

Gunns said the mill near the town of Launceston will create more than 3,000 jobs during construction and 1,600 when it becomes operational.

But Greens party leader Senator Bob Brown branded the timber firm an 'environmentally evil company' and said he was appalled by the government's decision.

The felling of forests for timber to be turned into paper pulp could drive the endangered Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle to extinction, the Greens said. Senator Brown called on the opposition Labor Party, which is tipped to win the national election, to reverse the decision if it gains power.

Wilderness Society campaign director Virginia Young said the mill would hasten the destruction of Tasmania's virgin hardwood forests, including some of the tallest trees in the world. 'If it is left to the Tasmanian government to regulate Mr Turnbull's decision and see that those conditions are met, then any conditions will frankly be a joke.'

More than 64,000 litres of effluent would be pumped from the mill into the ocean each day, she said.

Flanagan accused Gunns of creating environmental impact assessments 'riddled with inaccuracies and errors'. He said the company wielded enormous political power, making donations to both sides of politics and intimidating a 'supine' state parliament.

'What is happening in Tasmania is not the folly of a small, isolated island, but a harbinger of what Australia may become,' he told the Foreign Correspondents' Association in Sydney yesterday.

Flanagan, the winner of the National Fiction Award in 1996, has been branded a traitor in Tasmania's parliament for his outspoken opposition to the forestry industry.

The felling of Tasmania's forests was 'an environmental tragedy of global significance' that reduced wilderness areas to 'smouldering wastelands resembling World War One battlefields', he said.

Only 1,345 Tasmanians relied on forestry for their jobs, a fact the industry had tried to cover up, he said.