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5 January 2009
The Gunns pulp mill has been a matter of considerable public interest and, at times, controversy.
The former environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull, approved the Gunns mill subject to a number of conditions.
My role is to ensure these conditions are adequately addressed, and that the relevant matters of National Environmental Significance are protected, consistent with federal environmental legislation.
I've listened carefully to public views and considered closely all the relevant scientific material, departmental and legal advice necessary to make an informed decision.
I've always said, including prior to coming into Parliament, that value-adding of our forest resources is necessary, and that a world's best practice approach to environment protection means we can produce pulp and paper products rather than simply exporting our forests overseas as woodchips.
I take my responsibilities as environmental regulator very seriously.
As Federal Environment Minister my statutory jurisdiction is limited to defined matters of national environmental significance.
This Government inherited from the Howard Government a number of proposals that had already been approved.
The Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania is one of those proposals, approved by the now Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, on October 4 last year, immediately before the federal election.
This approval was subject to a number of conditions, including a requirement that Gunns submit for approval an Environmental Impact Management Plan (EIMP).
Rather than the EIMP for the project being assessed as a whole, the conditions set by Malcolm Turnbull allow the EIMP to be submitted in a number of distinct sections - called modules.
Having inherited this approval from Minister Turnbull, my role is to ensure that each module prepared by Gunns addresses all relevant conditions of approval so as to ensure that the proposed mill will not have unacceptable impacts on any matter of national environmental significance.
To ensure this occurs, each module is comprehensively examined by the Independent Expert Group, convened for this purpose, working closely with my Department.
I then consider the advice of the IEG and my Department, as well as any other relevant material that is before me, in determining whether I will approve each module.
I have made it absolutely clear throughout this process that I will only approve the Gunns EIMP if I am convinced that every module satisfactorily addresses all of the relevant environmental matters that are set out in the original approval conditions.
To date I have approved four modules:
Each of these modules was rigorously examined by the Independent Expert Group and by my Department, and I approved each of them on the basis that I was satisfied that they were consistent with the conditions of the original approval.
Today I informed Gunns Limited that I have approved a number of modules relating to the construction of the proposed pulp mill.
I am satisfied that each module addresses the relevant conditions of Malcolm Turnbull's approval.
The 9 modules I have approved today relate only to the construction of the mill and its associated infrastructure.
I have also approved minor variations to the route of the pipelines servicing the mill. These variations arise from the need to account for changes to major infrastructure such as a new bypass on the East Tamar highway and other local matters. This variation was made on the basis of clear advice from the IEG that these variations will have no adverse environmental impacts.
Gunns will still need to obtain necessary clearances from local authorities and land owners.
While all of the modules I have now approved relate to the construction of the proposed mill and its associated infrastructure, the three outstanding modules are different.
These three modules relate to the actual commissioning, operation, monitoring and response strategies of the proposed mill, and are more technical and complex in nature.
These modules deal with pre-commissioning management (L), ongoing monitoring of the mill's operation (M) and remedial and response strategies required in response to exceedances of environmental limits (N).
These modules were submitted in first draft to my Department in October this year, and following IEG consideration of subsequent drafts were submitted in final form to my Department on 16 December 2008.
Module L in particular relates to the further environmental studies that must be completed. These include:
I am announcing today that I will not be approving the three modules dealing with the operation of the mill and the impact of the mill effluent on the Commonwealth marine environment.
I will only make my final decision on whether or not to approve these modules once I am satisfied that the hydrodynamic modelling required by the conditions of approval, and as set out in module L, has been carried out, and any implications arising from this modelling for matters of national environmental significance - in particular the Commonwealth marine environment - have been comprehensively addressed.
In making this decision not to approve the three modules dealing with the operation of the mill and the impact of the mill effluent on the Commonwealth marine environment I have been mindful of the fact that the hydrodynamic modelling required to be completed by the conditions of approval has not been carried out.
It is my view that the results of this modelling are critical to finalising the EIMP, which must address the potential impacts of the proposed mill on the Commonwealth marine environment and other matters of national environmental significance.
My view is that the conditions set by Malcolm Turnbull are entirely unsatisfactory in relation to these essential environmental studies.
And further, I obtained independent legal advice from Senior Counsel on the proper interpretation of the conditions dealing with the hydrodynamic modelling. That legal advice has informed my conclusions in relation to Modules L, M and N.
In addition to this independent legal advice, the Independent Expert Group has been working within the constraints of Malcolm Turnbull's conditions, and their clear advice to me in relation to these operational modules is that the further studies required by the approval conditions, including the hydrodynamic modelling, must be carried out by Gunns and submitted to the IEG for assessment and a final approval decision by me prior to the commissioning of the mill.
It is clear from the IEG's advice that if the results of the required hydrodynamic modelling indicate effluent from the mill may have an unacceptable impact on the marine environment, then response strategies modifying the project - possibly extending to tertiary treatment of mill effluent - will be required.
I want to emphasise that whether response strategies are required, and what the nature of any such response strategies will be, is something that will only be determined once the required studies of the marine environment are carried out, and the results fully analysed.
On the basis of the IEG's scientific advice and the independent legal advice I have received, I have determined that it would be entirely inappropriate to give a final approval to the still incomplete modules of the Gunns' EIMP at this time.
It is clear to me that to approve the EIMP, in the absence of the critical environmental studies that have still to be carried out, would conspicuously fail to provide the level of environmental protection required by Australian law and expected by the Australian community.
In summary, while I acknowledge that considerable work has been carried out on the remaining three modules, I will not be making a decision on whether or not to approve the Gunns pulp mill EIMP until:
I have been advised that the environmental studies that need to be carried out and assessed as a part of the EIMP will be likely to take approximately 26 months, including time to assess the study results and make the necessary regulatory decisions.
It is critical that these studies are carried out meticulously and their results comprehensively scrutinized, because they are essential to assessing the proposed mill's potential impacts on the environment, and so to informing my final decision on whether or not to approve the final modules of the EIMP.
Accordingly, I will be exercising my power under the conditions to ensure that there is sufficient time for Gunns to carry out this critical environmental work, and to ensure there is adequate time for the results of the modelling and any response strategies to be fully examined by the Independent Expert Group, by my Department and by me.
As I've said, modules L, M and N outline remedial and response measures and timeframes should environmental trigger levels for effluent and the receiving environment be exceeded.
Condition 32 provides that the pulp mill must not operate if the monthly average effluent concentrations from the pulp mill exceed the stringent maximum limits provided in the conditions.
The conditions as approved by Malcolm Turnbull did not impose any other sanctions on Gunns for exceeding the maximum limits.
However, shutting down the mill as proposed under the conditions can have a significant environmental impact, as the restart procedure will create higher effluent loads while the biological treatment system starts to operate properly again.
Accordingly, in circumstances where the cause of any exceedance has been recognised, satisfactory responses have been implemented by Gunns and Gunns is able to show that the limits will not continue to be exceeded, shutting down the mill may have an unacceptable impact on the environment.
I have therefore agreed in principle that if Module L is ultimately approved, where exceedances occur in the limited circumstances outlined above, the mill will not have to shut down.
However, it would be unacceptable if Gunns were allowed to exceed the maximum environmental limits without sanction, and I have therefore varied the conditions of the original approval to insert a new condition that will apply to this module should it ultimately be approved.
This new condition stipulates that exceeding defined environmental limits will constitute a breach of the approval conditions, so that if this occurs Gunns will be subject to civil and criminal sanctions under the EPBC Act. These include civil penalties of up to $1.1 million per offence, as well as providing a basis for future variation, suspension or revocation of the approval.
This decision means that all the necessary work that has to be done, including studies of the impacts of effluent discharged from the mill on Commonwealth marine areas, is carried out, analysed and any responses agreed before any final approval decision can be made.
This decision strengthens and fills the gaps in the inadequate decision made by Malcolm Turnbull.
This decision is consistent with my role under the EPBC Act in ensuring a high level of protection for the environment, consistent with Australian law and consistent with the expectations of the Australian community.