Woodchipping giant Gunns Ltd's proposed $1.4 billion pulp mill in northern Tasmania continues to be the subject of controversy. Gunns has expressed impatience over the delays in the assessment process and threatened to axe the project if government approval is not given within six months.
On December 21, pulp-mill technology expert Dr Warwick Raverty quit the Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC) assessing the pulp mill, after receiving legal advice that other consultancy work done by his employer, CSIRO-Ensis, could compromise his position on the panel.
Upon his resignation, Raverty said that Gunns had chosen the "worst place possible" in Tasmania to build the mill. He said that Long Reach on the Tamar Estuary near Bell Bay is a very environmentally sensitive site. Not only does the area have poor air quality already, but it is near a major city — Launceston. He said that to operate a mill in such an area Gunns would need to spend millions more dollars on extra fans, filters, pumps and castings in order to reduce dangerous emissions.
In a letter printed in the January 10 Hobart Mercury, Raverty also hit out at the "unethical political activity" of Premier Paul Lennon's Labor government. He wrote that "no ethical, unbiased scientist should assist a government that is, in his or her view, duplicitous and Machiavellian in its dealings with the electorate it serves".
RPDC executive director Julian Green resigned from the panel on January 4 alleging political interference by the government and its Pulp Mill Task Force, which was set up with $6 million in funds ostensibly for the purpose of disseminating information about the proposed mill.
"The Pulp Mill Task Force has masqueraded as a public-information body but has mainly been providing blatant propaganda services to Gunns' proposed pulp mill at taxpayers' expense", Geoff Law, the Wilderness Society (TWS) campaign coordinator, said in a media release issued on January 7. "Its activities have now contaminated the RPDC's assessment of the pulp mill so much that the RPDC chief has resigned. The credibility of the pulp mill assessment is now in tatters."
Both TWS and the Tasmanian Greens have called for the task force to be disbanded.
On January 9, Gunns chairperson John Gay argued that the mill project had "already met all the guidelines and proved we're better than the standards — now just let's get on with the job of building it".
In a January 10 statement, Law pointed out that the major delays in the assessment process had been caused by Gunns itself, such as its changing of the scope of the project and delaying the release of its Integrated Impact Statement. Law also noted that Gunns' claim that it has met the RPDC's guidelines was "arrogant" and "wrong".
"It is for the independent umpire — the RPDC — to make that determination, not Gunns", said Law. "Meanwhile, Gunns has admitted that it can't meet all of the guidelines and has sought an increase in the permitted emissions of nitrous oxides."
According to the January 12 Mercury, Lennon made an emergency trip to Launceston on January 10 in an attempt to placate Gay and reassure him that the government would do all it could to speed up the assessment process and ensure the pulp mill is approved.
Greens parliamentary leader Peg Putt told the media on January 12 that "the revelation that Paul Lennon was prepared to drop everything to rush to John Gay at the same time that he continued his refusal to speak publicly showed a contempt for the Tasmanian people to whom he is answerable and indicated who really matters to the premier".
Putt accused Lennon of planning to subvert the pulp mill assessment guidelines at the behest of Gay. "Collaborating with Gunns to 'manage' an allegedly independent process such that an approval is granted expeditiously is a further attack on the independence and integrity of the process", she said.
In related developments, TWS has criticised the appointment of former Pulp Mill Task Force head Bob Gordon as the new managing director of Forestry Tasmania. In his new position, Gordon is "supposed to be managing state forests on behalf of the Tasmanian public", Law noted in his January 7 media statement. He called for the public release of Forestry Tasmania's wood-supply agreement for the pulp mill "to reassure the public that the interests of the pulp mill are not being put before those of the public".
The Tasmanian Greens have also charged that the appointment of lawyer Simon Cooper as interim RPDC head is flawed, claiming Cooper is a "Labor mate and crony" of Premier Lennon.