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© Neena Bhandari, Inter Press Service/International Federation of Environment Journalists

SYDNEY, Sep 4 (IPS/IFEJ) - A proposed pulp mill in the scenic Tamar Valley of the island state of Tasmania has become a contentious issue between environmentalists and pro-development groups as Australia goes to federal elections this year.

Gunns Limited, Australia's largest fully integrated hardwood forest products company, wants to build a two billion Australian dollar (1.6 billion US dollar) mill in the Tamar Valley, the heartland of the state's 61 million dollar wine industry and a popular tourist route.

A majority of people opposing the mill say it would destroy old growth forests and have a long-term impact on the environment, agriculture and tourism, wine and fishing industries.

Wine growers have raised concerns about odour and air pollution from the proposed pulp mill which will adversely impact on their business. Vineyard operator Peter Whish-Wilson says, "I rely heavily on sales at my cellar door. If those smells permeate my property, it's going to kill our reputation as a clean green place to grow wine."

The technology to be used in the chemical pulp mill is the "kraft process". Gunns is planning to use chlorine dioxide bleaching, in a process called elemental chlorine free (ECF). The community and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are lobbying for a totally chlorine free (TCF) process.

The mill, to be constructed on the banks of the Tamar River, near Tasmania's second largest city of Launceston, "would lead to thousands of tonnes of poisonous effluents being dumped into the Bass Strait every day, thereby threatening fish and marine life", says Paul I. J. Oosting, the pulp mill campaigner for The Wilderness Society, one of the one the most outspoken critics of the proposed mill.

Oosting says, "The pulp mill will be 80 percent native forest based at start-up and will lock in the destruction of high conservation value forests in Tasmania. That will be 4.5 million GMt (green metric tonnes) of wood a year coming from Tasmania's native forests, 4 million GMt of this will be for pulping and 0.5 million GMt for burning to generate power."

"Forests that will be destroyed to feed Gunns' proposed pulp mill, if it is allowed to proceed, include areas that are habitat for rare and endangered species such as the Tasmanian wedge tail eagle, the giant fresh water crayfish, and the spotted tail quoll," adds Oosting.

Logging of native forests would further endanger threatened species like the Tasmanian devil, Tasmanian eastern barred bandicoot, swift parrot and southern bell frog.

Oosting says, "Currently export wood chipping in Tasmania is around 4.5 million tonnes per year. Gunns plans to build a pulp mill and continue exporting woodchips. This would see a doubling of the total wood chipping industry in Tasmania, which would be a disaster for biodiversity and climate change. Besides, air pollution from the mill could exacerbate the rate of illnesses and deaths from respiratory diseases such as asthma and lung cancer."

Estimates by Gunns that there is enough timber in Tasmania's native forests to supply the bulk of wood for the mill until new eucalyptus plantations are ready to be harvested have been met with doubts.

Chris Beadle, a professional forest scientist for the past 35 years says, "Simple arithmetic shows that about 260,000 ha of eucalyptus plantations dedicated to pulpwood production would be required to meet the total wood supply for the mill which, when operating at full capacity, is stated to require 4 million GMt of wood to annually produce 1.1 million Mt of kraft pulp. If 10 percent of the wood used by the mill was pine, the area required for eucalyptus would be about 235,000 ha."

"An average short rotation to harvest is about 15 years. If the mill opened in 2009, the only eucalyptus plantation wood available at that time would be sourced from those plantations established in Tasmania by 1994: that is, about 25,000 ha. Hence there will be heavy reliance on native forest when the mill opens," he adds.

Between 2000 to 2005 the total amount of wood harvested from native forests in Tasmania was about 5.1 million GMt per year, including about 4.4 million GMt per year of pulpwood and 0.7 million GMt of saw logs. Beadle says current rates of harvesting exceed the long-term sustainable yield from this type of forest.

The proposed pulp mill will also place demands on Tasmania's production forests that will potentially overshadow demands from the other industries that rely on the same wood supply (such as sawn timber and veneer). "Several of these not only add more value to the wood harvested, their products also lead to greater storage of carbon. Tasmania's production forests will have a more secure and sustainable future if they are managed in the first instance for such products rather than pulp,’’ adds Beadle.

More than 25,000 Australians have joined GetUp!, an independent movement to build a progressive Australia, to campaign against Gunns’ proposed mill. "This is an overwhelming statement from the Australian people rejecting this ill-thought and retrograde industrial development which will harm Tasmania's environment and economy,’’ says GetUp! executive director Brett Solomon.

Meanwhile, a high profile businessman who also owns land in Tasmania, Geoffrey Cousins, is leading a fierce campaign against the proposed project, supported among others by former tennis star John Newcombe, actress Cate Blanchett and her husband, the playwright Andrew Upton.

Over 50,000 copies of an article by Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan, published in the monthly magazine ‘Out of Control: The Tragedy of Tasmania's Forests’, have been delivered to households in the electorates of the Australian environment minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the opposition Australian Labour Party's environment spokesman Peter Garrett.

The article assesses the destruction of old-growth forests and the influence of Gunns on the state government.

As the pulp mill becomes a burning election issue, Prime Minister John Howard said, "I would like to see an environmentally acceptable mill in northern Tasmania because it will provide jobs for people and it's important to the maintenance of the industry. The final decision to go ahead with the project would be subject to all environmental considerations being fully satisfied."

The government and the timber industry say the mill would pump 4.9 billion dollars into Tasmania's economy and offer great opportunities for employment; an additional 2,500 people during the process and 1,600 long-term.

Gunns owns 185,000 ha of freehold land and manages in excess of 110,000 ha of plantations. The company employs about 1,700 people and has a turnover of approximately 5.7 million dollars.

In the 2004 forestry election policy, Howard says, "I demonstrated three years ago that I'm a better friend of the workers in the timber industry in Tasmania than anybody in the Labour Party".

Opposition Labour Party environment spokesman Garrett says, "We're saying it should be a world's best practice mill and that is the basis on which we are supporting a mill in Tasmania."

The Tasmanian state parliament has approved the operating permit for the pulp mill. Gunns had hoped both the federal and state governments would give its pulp mill the go-ahead by Sep. 1, in time to meet binding and costly construction and financial contracts.

But the Australian environment ministry has extended the deadline of his environmental approval by six weeks to seek the opinion of chief scientist Jim Peacock.

Australian Greens leader Bob Brown says: "The mill question is now a litmus test on both Labor and the coalition's environmental credentials in the run up to this election.’’ The federal election could be held as early as October or November.

Gunns executive chairman John Gay said in a statement: "The company maintains its full commitment to pursue the project. We have worked with the world's top engineers to design the mill, we contracted Australia's best toxicologists to analyse any environmental effects, we engaged a leading university to model economic impacts and we have employed international pulp experts to join the Gunns team on a permanent basis. The mill design represents world's best practices in achieving the best environmental outcomes."

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ - International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)


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