On March 22, some 1500 protesters on Parliament Lawns denounced Tasmanian Labor Premier Paul Lennon's push to fast-track the building of a $1.5 billion pulp mill in Bell Bay, in northern Tasmania's Tamar Valley.
On March 14, logging giant Gunns Ltd had withdrawn its pulp mill proposal from the Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC) assessment process (through which all developments of state significance must pass), claiming it was too slow. Lennon moved quickly to introduce tailor-made legislation for a new approval process that precludes public hearings and is based on an assessment by private consultants within a limited time frame.
The protesters' chants could be heard inside parliament, where the House of Representatives was discussing Lennon's bill. The bill was passed with Liberal and Labor party support after just 14 hours' debate.
The mood of the crowd, which was more than double the size of a protest the previous week, was outrage. "Premier Lennon's mill approval legislation stinks and is a serious erosion of due process and democratic values in Tasmania", said Vica Bayley, spokesperson for the Wilderness Society (TWS). "This legislation has one purpose: to approve Gunns' controversial pulp mill with minimum fuss, limited scrutiny and no public involvement."
Michael Morris from Tasmanians Against the Pulp Mill described the huge drain the pulp mill would have on local water resources, which combined with declining average rainfall will create ongoing problems for the region.
Gunns says that each year it will require 26 billion litres of water and discharge 30 billion litres of effluent containing organochlorins into the Bass Strait. According to TWS, "Highly toxic persistent organic pollutants, such as dioxins and furans, will be discharged into Bass Strait, which has limited water movement, where it can take up to 160 days for flushing of water to occur".
Lee Bell from the National Toxics Network last year accused Gunns of contradicting global scientific opinion by falsely claiming that the bioaccumulation of dioxins and furans in marine animals is not an issue.
According to the Australian Medical Association, the outdated and polluting technology that the mill will use will result in more people dying from air-quality related diseases. At the rally, Gardening Australia's Peter Cundall likened the mill to a rotting compost heap where pristine wilderness went in one end and waste came out the other.
Geoff Law from TWS said in January, "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". It is estimated that the PMTF has received in excess of $6 million in government funding so far.
In late February, Gunns asked Lennon to speed the assessment process up. Legally, no minister may direct or order the RPDC in a way that changes or influences the outcomes, but on March 22, Christopher Wright, RPDC chairperson and former Supreme Court judge, made headlines by claiming that he was pressured by the premier to complete the assessment by July 31, or risk his role in the RPDC process being undermined by possible new legislation.
Wright's disclosure of the time line he was given for the process revealed that the premier intended to put the mill development proposal to parliament for approval, even if the RPDC found that the proposal did not meet the guidelines. Wright claimed that the pressure exerted on him was such that he offered his resignation.
In parliament on March 21, Lennon denied that he had exerted any undue pressure. However, the Greens and the Liberal Party requested that Attorney-General Steve Kons ask the director of public prosecutions to investigate. Kons refused to do so, claiming that the premier had done nothing wrong.
While state Liberal leader Will Hodgman accused the attorney-general on March 22 of being derelict in his duties, the Tasmanian Greens' Peg Putt said that a motion of no confidence in the attorney-general, put by the Greens, was voted down by Labor and Liberal.
Now that the bill has passed through the lower house, anti-pulp mill campaigners are urging people to lobby the upper house MPs. Environmentalists are worried that the pulp mill will set a precedent whereby other projects, such as Walker Corporation's proposed development at Ralph's Bay, will be fast-tracked without going through the proper assessment and approvals process.
A major protest rally is being planned for Launceston on April 1.