Federal Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made his decision. The controversial Tamar Valley pulp mill will be built if Gunns can meet a further 24 (for a total of 48) conditions imposed on it by the Federal Government. Opponents of the project are unhappy with the decision, but the Tasmanian timber industry is breathing a sign of relief.

Here’s what both sides told Crikey today following the announcement. But first, what the minister said:

My decision followed the recommendations of the Chief Scientist’s report and took account of advice from my Department and over 36,000 public submissions received through the three consultation periods over the five month assessment period since April this year.

The Chief Scientist advised me that he and the expert panel of scientists were impressed by the technical and engineering advances that have been made in the design and operation of Elemental Chlorine Free pulp mills. The panel accepted that the proposed mill was likely to conform to world’s best practice, and the panel considered that this was a strong argument that equally high standards should be expected of the interaction of mill operations with the environment.

These are the toughest environmental conditions ever imposed on a pulp mill anywhere in the world.   

The case against:

Greens Senator Christine Milne.

I’m not surprised the minister has approved the pulp mill with conditions. That’s what the Prime Minister wanted, and the cabinet will have given him those instructions. It will be interesting to see what Gunns calculates to be the extra cost of those conditions and whether they are prepared to meet them. At least one of the conditions requires more modeling to be done. The legal advice we have suggests that what he has done in approving the mill without being informed by the information he needs is illegal. Turnbull is hoping he has covered his back in Tasmania by putting additional conditions on it, but it will not satisfy anybody in northern Tasmania because it was far too narrow an analysis because it didn’t take into account forests, greenhouse gases, or air quality in the Tamar Valley, or its socio-economic impact on local businesses. This is just another step along the way to getting rid of the pulp mill. This won’t be enough to save Turnbull in Wentworth. The critical issue here is what Labor does. Of course, they are a big supporter of the pulp mill as well. George Newhouse, the Labor candidate in Wentworth, has been pretending he’s interested in what the people are saying, but his party is a supporter of the mill. This will continue to make Bass and Braddon very marginal. And we can’t forget, Peter Garrett is under considerable pressure in Kingsford-Smith as well. He says it’s world’s best practice. Well, I would like to know from Peter Garrett today if what he thinks Malcolm Turnbull has approved is world’s best practice, when it’s going to be such a large greenhouse gas emitter.

Geoff Law, Tasmanian forests campaigner, Wilderness Society.

These conditions completely ignore the major impact this mill will have, and that’s the impact on Tasmania’s land environment from its appetite for forests. It’s an issue, whether it’s the state or federal government, that has been completely ignored and has been ignored again by Malcolm Turnbull. Mr Turnbull is trying to have things both ways. He is saying he only has to look at a small subset of the impacts of this mill, mostly the impact of effluent in the Commonwealth waters. And now he comes out and says it’s going to be a world’s best practice mill. He has not looked at the impacts on forests, freshwater, or the impacts of the odours and particle pollution. What about world’s best practice when it comes to these issues?

The case for:

Barry Chipman, Timber Communities Australia.

After four years, this decision is an enormous relief to timber dependent communities. We’re now hoping the company can accept what we would describe as strict conditions. The Federal Minister himself has indicated that these conditions are the strictest to be applied to any pulp mill anywhere. I’ll note here that the Maryvale pulp mill in Victoria did not have any conditions like these placed on it at all. The Commonwealth saw no need to place conditions on it, yet the Bell Bay proposal has had two set of conditions placed on it. Severe as they are, the mill will be the benchmark throughout the world now. If the company indicates it can meet those conditions, Tasmania can proudly say it has the most strictly controlled pulp mill anywhere in the world.

Terry Edwards, Forest Industries Association of Tasmania.

This means the future of Tasmania’s small to medium sized businesses in the forest industry is largely secured, particularly that of forest harvesting contractors, who have been doing it really hard over the last couple of years as a result of the downturn in the woodchip market in Japan. When we look at Malcolm Turnbull’s critical comments about the approval process in Tasmania, we should keep in mind that there is a federal election in the wind, and I think the comments are a lot more about politicking than the process. The reality is the original process was flawed. We did not have a finite date for the conclusion of the process by the RPDC … The process the government then chose allowed for a rigorous economic and social assessment of the bill against the original guidelines established by the RPDC, and with the conditions put in place by the state parliament they were able to be convinced that the mill would operate at the highest possible standards. Malcolm Turnbull should take a long breath and forget about the election for a moment, and think a little bit more about what actually occurred here in Tasmania.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey