The federal environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has given government approval to the construction of the Gunns pulp mill in the Tasmanian Tamar Valley, planned to be the biggest pulp mill in the world. The decision, announced on October 4, attached an extra the 24 conditions to the approval, on top of 24 conditions previously imposed.
John Gay, chief executive of Gunns Limited, previously stated that Gunns could not work with any extra conditions, but has now indicated that they would meet the new regulations. On the day the pulp mill was approved, Gay was quoted by ABC Online, saying "I think that it's unfair that us (sic) as a company have to do this ... Australia is getting to the stage where eventually you won't have any projects here because the environmental guideline for anything will be too tight."
The Tasmanian state government gave their approval to the mill in August. At that time Turnbull extended his own assessment for another six weeks and charged the commonwealth's Chief Scientist, Jim Peacock, with evaluating the impact the pulp mill was likely to have on three areas of commonwealth responsibility.
However the author of the report was not required to include in his assessment impacts the mill would have on other areas, such as increased logging of native forests, worsening air quality in the local area, more deaths caused by an increase of log trucks on the roads, loss to local businesses and an increase in carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.
The approval requires that Gunns carries out further studies on the likely impact on threatened species and conducts more extensive modelling of ocean and likely effluent movements before construction can commence. The October 5 Hobart Mercury reported that there will probably be a three month delay in construction while these studies are conducted.
Susan Austin, Socialist Alliance candidate for Denison and an opponent of the mill, has been one of many to question how an approval could have been given without all the relevant information on hand. "To approve the mill without considering all these impacts makes the federal assessment process look like a farce", Austin said. "We have people like Terry Edwards from the Forest Industries Association saying 'When science is used to adjudicate this project it comes up trumps,' but then why did Gunns withdraw from the more rigorous independent assessment process that should have been completed by the Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC)?"
The Wilderness Society has pointed out that some of the new conditions actually allow Gunns to discharge more dangerous chemicals into the waterways, saying that the original draft approval given to Gunns allowed a maximum discharge of 1.9mg/L of chlorates but the new conditions allow 3.7mg/L.
The Flinders Island council is worried about the effluent contaminating their marine food supply and has vowed to seek damages if one single fish becomes contaminated by dioxin.
A new poll commissioned by the Wilderness Society has asked residents of Bass and Braddon electorates in northern Tasmanian whether the approval of the pulp mill would change the way they voted in the upcoming federal election. The results, released on Oct 4, showed that in Bass — the electorate encompassing Launceston and the area where the mill would be built — 27% of voters said they would be more likely to vote Liberal if Turnbull did not approve the mill. Fifty six per cent of people in that area were opposed to the mill.
Federal Labor environment spokesperson, Peter Garrett, has supported the decision to approve the mill and has stated that a Rudd Labor government would not seek to overturn or amend Turnbull's decision.
Greens leader Bob Brown announced on October 4 that the Greens would not direct preferences in any Tasmanian electorate to Labor or Liberal because of their support for the pulp mill. The October 5 Australian said this would mean that for the first time in a federal election, the Greens will have an open ticket in Tasmania. "We are not going to feed preferences in Tasmania to two political parties which are responsible for this environmental outrage and we will leave it to voters to make up their own mind." Brown said.
The mill has been formally approved, but opponents will continue to campaign against it. Bob McMahon from local group Tasmanians Against the Pulp Mill told Green Left Weekly that Turnbull's decision was predictable but he wasn't satisfied with the conditions placed on it. "If you start building the mill while the assessment is still going on, it's too late to shut it down if a problem is found. This is all part of an assessment process that hasn't been done properly." When asked if any local groups were happy with the extra conditions McMahon said, "a lot of groups are unequivocal; we do not want this pulp mill. The impact it will have on our island will be dramatic. Fight we must then fight we will".
Austin agreed, saying "We can still stop this pulp mill. We've learned from campaigns in the past — such as the successful campaign to save the Franklin River — that struggles don't begin and end in parliament. Democratic, grassroots-oriented mass movements of people can pressure governments and change the course of events."
Geoffrey Cousins, a board member of Telstra and high profile pulp mill opponent, has also pointed to the historic Franklin Dam project that had both state and federal approval but never went ahead. A major rally against the pulp mill has been planned for Low Head on October 7. Both Cousins and green groups are also currently seeking legal advice and may challenge the decision in court. "Giving the mill the go-ahead without the Minister determining the impact on the marine ecosystem of Bass Strait, would be breaking the nation's law. This is not permitted in the EPBC [Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act]," Brown said on October 4.