On 29 January 2014 the Tasmanian Parliament passed the Pulp Mill Assessment Amendment Bill 2014 for the purpose of removing all doubts regarding the legal validity of the permit for the Tamar Valley Pulp Mill and, specifically, to prevent the TCT’s Supreme Court case continuing and potentially finding the permits had lapsed.
It is a basic element of our democracy that citizens can approach the courts to have a decision of a government or a law reviewed, clarified or overturned. For a government to legislate to kill off the TCT’s ongoing court case and prevent us exercising this right is undemocratic. It may also deter other Tasmanians from attempting to seek justice through the courts.
The TCT’s case was merely asking the court whether the permit was invalid because the proponent had failed to comply with a condition of the permit, to substantially commence the project by August 2011, i.e. had Gunns complied with the law? By proposing this legislation the government has tacitly admitted that the proponent had failed to comply with the law but it intends to ignore that and revalidate the permit. This renders development permits and conditions virtually meaningless.
Clearly the state government does not want the Supreme Court to scrutinise the legal status of the permit, just as it did not want the Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC) to assess the original proposal. The government makes extravagant claims about the rigour of the assessment process but it does not want the project to be independently scrutinised.
The legislation also removed provisions that required the mill to be shut down if it failed to meet key operating conditions relating to environmental and human health. The importance of the original provision was that, if a regulator such as the George Town Council or the Environment Protection Authority failed to act if conditions were breached then the TCT or another party could apply to the Supreme Court for an order to shut the mill. The new legislation removes this option leaving compliance entirely in the hands of the regulator. And without a legislated trigger it would be very difficult for a regulator to justify total closure of the mill.
This comes on top of the flaws of the original 2007 approval process for the pulp mill, which included:
- removal from the independent expert assessment body (RPDC)
- a special Act of Parliament enabling approval of the mill by politicians who had no expert knowledge of its environmental effects
- a compromised environmental impact assessment process
The government could intervene again. If the pulp mill were to be built and the operator could not meet requirements regarding waste entering Bass Strait then the government could legislate to amend the permit and allow higher concentrations of contaminants.
The recent legislation extends the life of the permit so the pulp mill does not have to be substantially commenced until August 2017. The permit was issued in 2007 but the design dates back to 2004. In the pulp and paper industry, 2004 design is very old technology.
This is an interesting quote from Gunns’ website, just prior to the 2007 permit being issued:
Will the proposed mill adopt world’s best technology? Gunns proposes to construct an elemental chlorine-free (ECF) bleached hardwood and softwood Kraft pulp mill. Such pulp mills have evolved over recent years, with each one being technologically and environmentally better than the last. http://www.gunnspulpmill.com.au/faqs.html
And technology has just kept improving. So let’s stop hearing about this 2004-model pulp mill being ‘world class’.
Putting a time limit on construction of any development, and sticking to it, is a key principle that underpins our planning and development assessment laws. It is especially important for large, dangerous and controversial projects. Over time, the land use around the development site can significantly change and the council and government are justified in reassessing the project. Similarly, technologies and production methods change and generally improve, and our understanding of the environmental impacts of a project may also change, requiring reassessment of the development.