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Interview with Virginia Trioli, ABC2 Breakfast
6 January 2009
TRIOLI: Now, there's been strong reactions on all sides to the Federal Government's decision to demand further environmental tests before granting final approval to the Gunns pulp mill in northern Tasmania. The company's now been given until March 2011 to resubmit environmental credentials for the project.
Now, the decision hasn't pleased the Greens, and the Federal Opposition says the Government is sidestepping the issue.
Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, joins us now from Sydney. Minister, good morning and happy new year.
GARRETT: Yeah, same. Good morning, Virginia.
TRIOLI: Mr Garrett, after all this time from both this side of politics and the previous government, what information were you still lacking before you could finally give or withdraw your approval for this project?
GARRETT: Virginia, the key issue with this mill is the effect of the dispersal of effluent into the waters outside of the Tamar Valley and into Bass Strait. And in order to properly predict the effect of that dispersal, sediment, toxic loads and where actually the plume may or may not go, you need to do real time, four-seasonal modelling, hydro-dynamic modelling, to such an extent that you can have confidence, (a), in what's actually going to happen when the effluent is discharged into the water, and (b), determine what special response strategies may be needed, such as tertiary treatment, if in fact levels are detected which are higher than those that the standards have been set for.
Now, the effect of my decision yesterday is to make sure that that work is done properly and that the strategies for dealing with any issues that arise are clearly identified before any final approval can be given.
TRIOLI: But also an effect of your decision yesterday is that the company now can go ahead in building this new plant once it gets the money, even in advance of getting this final environmental approval.
So if that's the case, you must be assuming they're going to get there eventually. Why not just give them the tick?
GARRETT: Well, actually, Virginia, I heard the intro to the piece, and I've got to say that I'm amazed that Mr Hunt from the Opposition is out criticising this decision, given that it's in part based on his leader's original conditions. And it was Malcolm Turnbull that set up an approval for this mill based on a series of modules that can be approved by a minister.
And Gunns have already had approval on some modules, and they could have started preliminary construction work as early as February of last year. Now, they chose not to do that.
But the critical thing here is that I've brought forward the important technical and scientific analysis and work that needs to be done in terms of marine effluent. That ought to provide some certainty to the proponent, that if there are other issues that arise, they have to be addressed before a final approval can be given.
And whether or not Gunns decide to actually - can start constructing a mill prior to getting final approval is a matter for them to take and it's a risk for them to take if they so choose.
TRIOLI: So therefore you are - you want to see the pulp mill built, or not?
GARRETT: I'm sorry, say that question again.
TRIOLI: Do you want to see the pulp mill built, or not?
GARRETT: What I want to see is that the conditions that were laid out and I inherited from Mr Turnbull are strengthened and made work to the extent that if there is going to be a pulp mill on that site, there are no significant impacts on matters of national environment significance. That's my duty as the Federal Minister, and I've always said consistently that I would approach this issue in that light.
Now, that's what I've done today. We have strengthened conditions, which mean that in the event that there is an approval and that there's effluent discharge and it exceeds the standards, there'll be sanctions that apply.
But critically and absolutely centrally to this whole discussion has been the question of effluent dispersal. I've made sure that the work that has to be done will be done properly beforehand, before any approvals may or may not be given, and I think that should provide confidence to the community and also to Gunns that the decision-making has been done in a sound and reasonable fashion.
TRIOLI: But I just want to try if I can just one more time to get to the heart of this issue, which is that you seem to be having a bet both ways, that is, that the company can try and start and raise some finance now and get this pulp mill started, but at the same time, you can pull away the final approval if you don't like what's found once we do the final environmental checks in the next two years or so.
Why not just make a strong decision one way or the other?
GARRETT: Well, Virginia, Mr Turnbull's approval of this pulp mill was done in a way which delivered sets of distinct modules. Each of these modules covers a certain component of the construction...
TRIOLI: Mr Garrett, as Environment Minister you're perfectly entitled to take a different approach if you see it as relevant and if you see fit.
GARRETT: Look, I've been at pains to point at, as any government would, that we are not going to be in the business of overturning a previous legal and valid approval given by an earlier government. That would be irresponsible and it would be something which would expose the Government to claims of sovereign risk issues and others. That's entirely not appropriate.
My task has been to work in the most effective way with the conditions of approval that Malcolm Turnbull put in place.
Now, each of the modules that you've referred to that I've approved have not had significant impacts on matters of national environment significance. There's been no environmental issues of a scale or order which means that they shouldn't be approved.
However, the three modules that I have not approved are the critical modules in relation to the actual operation of this pulp mill. They are the central modules in terms of determining whether or not this mill will be able to operate in a way which does not produce environmental impacts on matters of national environment significance.
We shall await the process that has to be undertaken properly in order to do that, and that is exactly the right course of action for someone in my position.
TRIOLI: Minister, do you believe that in this day and age that pulp mills can actually exist in a country like Australia that wants to take environmental concerns seriously?
GARRETT: Yes, I do, and even when I was ACF President, as you may remember, I supported the Visy pulp mill in Tumut in New South Wales on the basis that it was world's best practice standards and it was drawing its resource in a way which was sustainable. And I've always said that we have to go to the next stage, not simply of exporting our forests as woodchips, but of actually value adding.
We've got a significant finished paper products deficit in this country, but it has to be done in a way which ensures that the environment is properly protected. And as the Federal Environment Minister, my role is clearly defined under the legislation, and it's clearly determined in part by the decision of approval that Malcolm Turnbull made.
I will work within those parameters to deliver the best environmental result I can, if indeed there's going to be a pulp mill on this site.
TRIOLI: And Minister, as someone you just mentioned who's long had environmental credentials, who worked for the ACF and the like over the years, have you found this entire process personally very difficult and challenging? You've now got Greens and people who you would have seen once as marching alongside you up in arms against you today. Has this been personally difficult for you?
GARRETT: Look, no it hasn't, Virginia. I was - look, I accept that there's going to be, you know, contested debate in politics. One of the things that surprises me about the Greens' view, particularly Senator Brown's, is that he's very reckless with his use of language and the kinds of assertions that he makes, and he knows that they're not true in some instances.
For example, he was saying two days ago that I was taking directions in order to approve this mill. Now, not only was that completely wrong, it shows a profound misunderstanding of the nature of my role as Environment Minister, something that Bob Brown ought to know, having been in the Parliament for many years.
The decisions that I make as Environment Minister are challengeable under law. I have to provide a statement of reasons for what I'm doing and I have to show clearly that I've properly understood and taken into account all the important issues that I'm required to by law. I take that responsibility very seriously.
Of course, I want to see the environment well protected. That's my role, that's my job. I really believe in it and I intend to keep on doing it the way that I've done it today and yesterday.
TRIOLI: Peter Garrett, thanks for your time this morning.
GARRETT: Thanks, Virginia.