Thursday, 16 August 2007
Tasmanian Pulp Mill
When I was 16 I rafted down the Franklin River, the year after it had been saved. The experience was inspiring to say the least; it gave me an appreciation of Australia’s amazing natural environment and highlighted in particular the importance of preserving the Tasmanian wilderness. That is why today I rise to express my concern to the House about the pulp mill proposed by Gunns Ltd to be established at Bell Bay, in northern Tasmania. The Gunns pulp mill process has become more than just a Tasmanian issue; it is something that has become of grave concern to many Australians.
My electorate of La Trobe includes the Dandenong Ranges National Park, which might explain why residents in my electorate feel such outrage at the conduct of the Tasmanian Labor government, which has railroaded its own independent environmental assessment process. I share this outrage. My chief concern is Gunns’ withdrawal of the project from the independent joint federal-state assessment by Tasmania’s Resource, Planning and Development Commission, RPDC, citing the lack of an end date. It has since emerged that the RPDC had concluded that the company’s project information was critically noncompliant. To keep the project afloat the Tasmanian Labor government passed legislation to establish a different approvals process requiring much less scientific scrutiny and to be carried out by consultants hand-picked by the Tasmanian government to produce a report in just six weeks.
The reports that have now been cobbled together can hardly be considered comprehensive. Sweco Pic, the Swedish firm engaged to produce the environmental assessment, visited Tasmania for only two days. Further, both reports will not be subject to independent scrutiny, something which would have occurred had the RPDC conducted public hearings as originally intended. Given these problems, particularly with the environmental assessment, I am pleased that the Commonwealth has exercised its right under the EPBC Act to fully examine those matters that fall within the Commonwealth jurisdiction and to approve or reject the proposal having considered all relevant evidence, public submissions and advice from Environment Australia.
Last year, Gunns delivered a presentation to the backbench committee for environment and heritage on the proposal. Gunns explained that they currently export their sawlog residue to be milled into pulp in countries like Japan and that, if the mill were not built at Bell Bay, they would be forced to build a mill offshore, probably in South-East Asia. No-one wants to see Australian jobs and industry go offshore, but it is incumbent on all governments, state and federal, to ensure that projects of this size are not going to turn out to be environmental catastrophes. Further, at that meeting I asked the Gunns representative directly whether Gunns would be using old-growth forest wood at the mill, and I was told categorically that they would not. I was assured of this. I can only take them at their word, but the project should not go ahead if there is any prospect that old-growth logs will be used.
It should be borne in mind that the Commonwealth does not have authority to overrule the Tasmanian government on this issue. The Commonwealth government assessment of the pulp mill is restricted to matters relating to endangered species and the Commonwealth marine area which begins 5.4 kilometres from Tasmania’s coast. Last week’s Federal Court judgement confirmed that environmental matters which extend beyond these, such as forestry operations and air pollution, are matters only for the Tasmanian state government.
Because the Tasmanian Labor government has shown itself to be completely incapable of standing up for the Tasmanian environment, I have met personally with Malcolm Turnbull and asked him to do everything in his power to ensure that this project does not go ahead unless he is satisfied that endangered species such as the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle will not be further endangered by the mill, that the impact of pollutants from the proposed pipeline will not endanger the health of migratory marine species and that the ocean environment will not be threatened by the effluent disposal pipeline four kilometres offshore.
Further, I call on the Tasmanian state Labor government to resubmit the project to the RPDC to allow it complete its comprehensive independent environmental assessment and to make Gunns commit that old-growth logs will be not used, as a condition of the mill gaining approval. We must do all we can to ensure that every environmental question is answered before this mill is built. The dangers to our natural environment are far too great to leave to chance.