May 31 marked the first day of a court challenge launched by the Wilderness Society (TWS) against the federal government, which TWS claims has broken its own environmental laws. According to TWS, federal environment minister Malcolm Turnbull acted illegally by allowing a proposed billion-dollar Gunns Ltd pulp mill in Tasmania's Tamar Valley to escape proper assessment by the independent Resource Planning and Development Commission.
Activists believe the pulp mill will have adverse environmental and health impacts if it is allowed to be built. The mill would be one of the largest in the world. Initially, 80% of its timber would come from native forests, before moving to plantation wood. This means there would be no immediate end to the logging of Tasmania's ancient forests. It is believed the mill would use some 26 billion litres of fresh water a year and would pump toxins into Bass Strait.
After Gunns pulled the mill out of the independent assessment process, the Labor state government rushed a new, much narrower assessment process through parliament, instead of insisting that the mill go through the same process as every other project of state significance. The new assessment process will only look at the mill's alleged benefits and not at the impacts it will have on other industries such as tourism, fishing or agriculture.
The federal goverment is also required to approve the decision to build the pulp mill. In court on May 31, Turnbull agreed to withhold a decision on the approval of the mill until after the August 6 conclusion of the case.
Gunns had made clear to the state government that it wanted the project approved by July 1 to protect an already signed contract with a construction company. The Hobart Mercury reported on June 1 that an internal Gunns financial document tendered in court revealed the company would lose over $1 million a day if construction does not start by September 1.
Gunns' director has previously put pressure on the state goverment by threatening to take the pulp mill project interstate or overseas if it is not approved quickly enough. Both the state and federal governments have given tax payer-funded support to the mill through subsidies and advertising.
Premier Paul Lennon has written to every Tasmanian household promising that each family would be $870 a year better off if the mill is built. However, a May Taspol poll found that even in the state's north, where the mill would be built and where support for Tasmania's logging industry is strongest, 55% of people oppose the project. TWS is holding a rally in Launceston's City Park at noon on June 16 to oppose the mill's fast-tracking.