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Where there's a mill...

Plans to build a pulp mill in Tasmania put forests and wildlife under threat, but that doesn't seem to bother the Australian government.Tasmania's wild Franklin river flows free to the sea today, attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists every year and providing more jobs than the Franklin dam ever would have.

In 1982, with $67m already spent on constructing the proposed Franklin dam, it looked like the river would be lost forever. The enormous pubic concern, backed by the high court, prevailed and the dam was abandoned.

Now another controversial development threatens Tasmania's wildness and its clean, green image - Gunns Ltd's $1.9bn pulp mill.

The creation of the pulp mill would destroy around 200,000 hectares of native forests (equivalent to 200,000 football fields), reducing the habitat of rare and endangered species. A Melbourne University study shows that if the planned logging of Tasmania's northeast forests (the primary source for the pulp mill) goes ahead, the risk of Tasmania's giant wedge-tailed eagle going to extinction there rises from 65% to 99%. The future of the world's largest freshwater crayfish, which grows up to 1 metre in length and 5kg in weight, is also at stake.

The mill's emissions could also threaten the organic status of Tamar Valley farms and its sulphur-based pulping process will have occasional escape of foul odours like rotten egg gas, threatening local vineyards. The geography of the Tamar Valley, home for 100,000 Tasmanians, creates an airshed which traps polluted air in the valley, leading the Australian Medical Association to oppose the mill due to the risk to human health.

It is estimated that the mill will consume 40bn litres of freshwater (Australia is in the middle of a once-in-a-thousand-years drought) and discharge 64m litres of effluent into Bass Strait each day. The effluent will contain cancer-causing dioxins and furans, but Gunns have so far failed to complete the scientific modelling required to show how the toxins will accumulate in the marine eco-system including fur seal and penguin colonies.

The mill also looks set to contribute more than 10m tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year over its 30-year life.

How could this be?

The Howard government has given approval for the mill with what it describes as "the world's toughest environmental conditions". But it did not consider the greenhouse impact, nor the impact on human health or forests in its approval.

Labor's shadow environment minister, Peter Garrett, has given unqualified support for the mill to proceed.

The Greens insist on clean air, water, farmland and the protection of the last wild forests.

While the government and opposition are happy with the proposal, independent experts have expressed grave fears. Erik Nystrom, a specialist in pulp and paper for the Swedish Environment Protection Agency has said that the dioxin level that would trigger the closure of the mill equalled the amount of dioxin emitted annually by the entire Swedish bleached pulp and paper industry.

"I cannot understand how it would be possible to get to that level with modern (pulp) processing. Why they have set their levels at this level I don't know. Any Swedish mill that saw such levels would be alarmed and act immediately," he said.

Tasmanians deserve a pristine environment and a world's best practice pulp mill. A plantation-based mill, totally chlorine free, would have the support of the community, if it were located elsewhere.

Clearly this pulp mill is not world's best practice, yet both the coalition and Labor parties support it at both the federal and state level.

Gunns claims the mill will create 284 jobs. But many more jobs are threatened in local businesses by the pollution and loss of the clean, green Tasmanian brand. A cost-benefit analysis found the mill could be a $3.3bn drain on the economy, after government subsidies and the costs to the health system and fishing, agricultural and tourism industries were taken into account.

The processes that have underpinned the decision to grant Gunns the right to build on our forests and pollute our oceans have been fundamentally flawed. But the biggest problem is the lack of vision of those who still think that prosperity and pollution go hand in hand.

At this year's election Australians will have a chance not just to cast a vote on the desirability of this polluting pulp mill, but on the future direction of Australia. As the scientific evidence of global warming mounts, it is time to change the way major development decisions are made.

If Tasmania were to build a truly "world's best practice" pulp mill it could create jobs and protect the environment.

This pulp mill provides a litmus test of how seriously political parties are taking climate change and the environment. The Labor party and the Liberal-National coalition have failed at the first hurdle.


First published in The Guardian

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