Jumping the Gunns

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The Good: In 1988, the Wang Computer Corporation promised that the world’s offices would be paperless. Nineteen years later, our offices are in fact ‘Wangless’ and ‘paperful.’ Each computer added to a home or office actually creates a demand for more paper.

‘Kraft’ is the German word for strength. It also describes the process that changes plant fibres into pulp to make over 80 per cent of the world’s highest quality printing and writing papers.

The Tamar Valley

A well-run kraft pulp mill, using the best available technology, is a prime example of the diverse bio-refinery of the future. This is because the ‘kraft’ process uses the same chemicals over and over again to make the non-fibre parts of plants into something that can be washed out with water and then burnt to provide all of the energy required to run the pulp mill. And because plants are trapped carbon dioxide converted using solar energy if the woodchips that feed the mill come from plantation timber, this energy is ‘green.’

Australia currently has two kraft pulp mills one in Victoria, the other in NSW. For 30 years, all Federal Governments have unsuccessfully encouraged the building of sustainable pulp mills to add value to the 8-9 million tonnes of woodchips we export annually to Asia.

In November 2004, the Tasmanian forestry giant, Gunns Limited, proposed constructing a world-scale kraft pulp mill in Tasmania and undertook to do feasibility studies on two potential sites: the Tamar Valley (one of Tasmania’s prime wine-growing and tourist regions, that 100,000 people call home) and Hampshire (35 km south of Burnie at the centre of 100,000 hectares of eucalypt forests with almost no residents). Assessment of the proposal was given to Tasmania’s independent planning authority, the Resource Planning Development Commission (RPDC).

The majority of fair-minded Tasmanians were happy.

The Bad: First, if the woodchips feeding the kraft process come from forests (or plantations) that are not managed sustainably, then pulp mills can wreak significant damage on the environment and on surrounding communities.

Secondly, and somewhat ironically, kraft mills were banned in the country of their origin (Germany) for many decades until 1991 because of the single disadvantage that modern technology cannot completely control kraft mills smell very, very bad. Kraft mills usually spend tens of millions of dollars in odour control equipment and destroy 99.9 per cent of the smell a fruity mix of rotten eggs and rotting seaweed. But no one has yet stopped the last 0.1 per cent of the odour escaping, and that fugitive amount is more than enough to cause headaches and nausea in people living up to 20 km away.

Thirdly, if kraft pulp mills make bleached pulp and do not use the best modern technology, persistent organic pollutants, including dioxins, are discharged with the mill’s wastewater. The lessons of history are: use the best available technology and build your kraft mill well away from people.

Fourthly, in February 2005, Gunns abandoned their study of the unpopulated, Hampshire site, quoting unspecified additional costs that included $15-20 million per year in additional costs for wood transport.

The Ugly: Largely through inexperience and lack of understanding of the complexities of building a large kraft mill, Gunns failed twice (on 25 October 2006, and 22 February 2007) to satisfy the RPDC that they could build such a facility in the Tamar Valley without adverse impact on the environment and the community.

Gunns unilaterally withdrew from the RPDC assessment process in March 2007. Rather than rejecting the proposal at this point, the Tasmanian Government invited Gunns’s lawyers to assist in drafting legislation for a ‘fast-track approval process’ that failed to assess many of the important factors, bad smells among them, associated with kraft mills. Overnight, the Tasmanian Parliament became the State’s peak planning authority.

Deeply suspicious of this peculiar Government-Gunns relationship, the majority of Tasmanians who had been happy became very unhappy.

Both major political Parties saw only an electoral ‘poisoned chalice’ in the situation and sought to keep the problem out of the national limelight. Peter Garrett shaved defender of the environment instantly became ‘Pulpmill Pete.’

The Solution: The cleanest, greenest kraft mills exist in environmentally conscious nations: Sweden, Germany, Finland. The best mill in Stendal Germany was built between 2002-5 by a private company, Mercer International, using a 250 million government subsidy that enabled it to be built in an area of high unemployment, plentiful plantation forests and low population density. Mercer’s mill is exactly one half the size of the one proposed by Gunns.

Many inconvenient truths indicate that this German paradigm is highly appropriate as we enter the 21st century.

Misguided economic rationalism has forced many industries into direct conflict with environment and communities and the pulp industry is no exception. We all use lots of paper it’s just as essential to developed societies as electricity, public transport, ports and health services; all of which are subsidised for the public good with taxpayers’ money.

Likewise, kraft mills are legitimate infrastructure. They rely on public assets like sustainably managed native forests, groundwater for plantation forests, public fresh water for processing, oceans to accept highly treated, non-toxic wastewaters and the atmosphere to disperse and biodegrade unavoidable fugitive odours.

The cost differences between a pulp mill at the ideal location of Hampshire and the totally unsuitable site in the Tamar Valley should therefore become the first beneficiary of John Howard’s Infrastructure Fund (and Kevin Rudd’s equivalent). Subsidy of the additional wood transport costs identified by Gunns would create more jobs for Tasmanian forestry workers, who justifiably fear unemployment and a diminished future.

Federal subsidies would only be needed for 15 of the mill’s 100-year lifetime. Local plantations could then meet the mill’s total requirement.

Federal intervention with well-directed subsidies would demonstrate ‘aspirational nationalism‘ and visionary leadership at their best.

The involvement of influential, fair-minded people like Geoff Cousins, Leo Schofield, Rebecca Gibney, David Williamson and the other 120 Australians of note who have signed an advertisement asking Minister Turnbull to insist on the most stringent assessment available, is very welcome. It shows that grass-roots democracy is alive and well in Australia and that people on the mainland will actively support people in Tasmania who have been fighting the ugly aspects of this issue since November 2004.

It is now time for our politicians at both Federal and State levels to respond to this call. Prime Minister Howard’s pronouncement that ‘Australians are interested in good outcomes, not theories of government’ is even more applicable to a pulp mill that will last 100 years or more than it is to a small regional hospital. A project of national significance like a giant chemical pulp mill needs rigorous assessment and sensitive siting. If government subsidy is required to achieve that, so be it.

Australia should model itself more on the forward-thinking nations of Europe and less on the ‘head-in-the sand‘ attitudes of the Tasmanian Labor Government.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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