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Timber mill threatens birthplace of green politics

By Kathy Marks in Sydney

Residents of Tasmania, the Australian state regarded as the birthplace of the global environmental movement, are bitterly divided about plans to build a massive timber-pulping mill in one of the island's most scenic areas.

The state government and the logging industry are firmly behind the mill, which will pulp several million tons of woodchips a year for export. Opponents claim that it will harm the environment, the economy and public health. Launceston - Tasmania's second-largest city, with a population of 65,000 - is just 22 miles south.

Tourism operators, vineyard owners, organic farmers and fishermen in the Tamar Valley region, in northern Tasmania, are concerned about the impact of air pollution and chemicals flowing into the nearby Bass Strait. Two dozen vineyards producing world-acclaimed white and pinor noir wines are in the area, some just a few hundred yards from the site, on the banks of the Tamar river.

The state parliament in Tasmania, where the world's first Greens party was founded in 1972, will vote on the mill next week, but seems certain to endorse it. In Canberra, the federal Environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has already given draft approval. The decision so infuriated Geoff Cousins, a former adviser to the Prime Minister, John Howard, that he announced plans this week to fight Mr Turnbull in his marginal Sydney seat in an impending general election.

The controversy has exposed the paradox at the heart of Tasmania, which markets itself as a clean, green land, but seems to place little value on preserving its pristine environment. The island's old-growth native forests are logged voraciously and motorists on quiet country roads are overtaken by aggressively driven logging trucks.

The debate has also highlighted the political influence of the timber industry, which many critics claim runs Tasmania.

The mill will be built by Gunns, Australia's largest native-forest logging company, whose managing director, John Gay, is said to be close to Tasmania's pro-logging premier, Paul Lennon. A recent investigation by ABC television's Four Corners programme alleged that plans for the mill were hatched by Mr Lennon and Mr Gay over lunch in a Hobart restaurant.

Opponents of the £820m mill claim that Gunns has received special treatment. The company withdrew from an independent planning inquiry earlier this year, saying that it was taking too long. Two expert members of the inquiry panel had already resigned, complaining about government interference, including an alleged demand that it shelve public hearings. Mr Lennon then created his own fast-track review process, which led to government-appointed consultants swiftly endorsing the mill. The premier fronted advertisements on state television, promoting the project, before it was even approved.

Yesterday Mr Lennon admitted that he had made changes to the mill's operating conditions at the request of Gunns, which was given a copy of them nearly three weeks before politicians. Peg Putt, leader of the Tasmanian Greens, told ABC radio that air and water emission limits had been relaxed.

Gunns claims that the heavily subsidised pulp mill, which will be Australia's largest, will create 300 jobs and benefit the state economy by £2.66bn a year. But a report commissioned by Tamar Valley businesses concluded this week that it could cause 1,700 job losses and cost local industry £1.31bn, particularly if pollution triggers health problems.

Gunns points out that there is already heavy industry in the Tamar Valley area. Mr Gay has promised that the mill will be "the most modern and cleanest in the world".

Nearly 25 years ago, protesters prevented a hydro-electric dam being built on the Franklin river, in a wilderness area of western Tasmania. It was, arguably, the first time anywhere that direct action by environmentalists had achieved a concrete result. In the Tamar Valley, though, the battle seems already lost.


From Belfast Telegraph