Indeed, particularly since 1992 the parliament has proclaimed its limitations in this specialised area by passing a raft of significant legislative and institutional arrangements to establish procedures, public input, due process and expertise within a recognised public policy and public administration framework. The Lennon government who saw fit to abandon this process at the behest of the commercial imperatives of Gunns Ltd still understand the limitations of representative capacity by alluding to the need for an independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Of course, details and exemptions will follow the approval of the Gunns pulp mill project.
In the coming weeks Tasmanians will hear a lot about the integrity and capacity of our permit, monitoring and compliance policy instruments that will - the government will trumpet loudly - secure the integrity of the project in relation to environmental emissions. In my view – despite the efforts and expertise of individuals sanctioned with such roles under our current legislation – this is a much overstated capacity. Just as an $11 million IIS does not constitute an approved project, 1,100 pages of licences and conditions does not constitute a compliance and monitoring regime that the public can necessarily have faith in.
I draw attention to a couple of currently existing provisions that must concern all Tasmanians:
Unless there are significant changes to the current legislative provisions in relation to licence approvals, permits, compliance and monitoring the principle attached is essentially self-regulatory. The proponent will do the monitoring, report any permit breaches and the Tasmanian government is moving to extend permit reviews to periods of five years from the current three years (Budget Papers 2007-2008 No 2. Vol 2. 12.28), hardly reassuring if significant changes to permit conditions are identified during operation.
Recently, the scale, absurdity and anomalies attached to our current permit , compliance and enforcement procedures was highlighted. A North West Council employee was fined $3,000 for a breach of a licensing permit when up to 150,000 litres of sewerage was spilt into a waterway – fortunately without any evidence of long-term ecological damage. It probably looked bad and smelt even worse. The original proposed fine of $10,000 – the highest under a level 2 activity - was reduced at the discretion of the Director of Environmental Management.
This incident should be compared with the pulp mill. In the latter case, the proponent will presumably have a permit to discharge up to 73 million litres (IIS document) a day of chemical effluent into Bass Strait. No, it’s just not salt, Mr Harriss (Member for Huon in the Legislative Council).
In addition a permit will be granted for the storage of 49,000 tonnes of solid waste per year. It is not inappropriate to describe this as effectively a sanctioned licence to pollute, well in excess – across all measures of size and potential environmental threat – of the breach and fine imposed on the North West council officer. Surely, this disproportionate anomaly requires explanation? It appears absurd.
In 2002 the Auditor General reported on Environmental Management and Pollution Control in Tasmania – all Tasmanians and their parliamentarians should read this Report (Special Report Number 40).
The Report outlines licence provision, compliance and monitoring operations in relation to legislative provision at the time of the Report. It makes a number of observations and recommendations relating to administrative capacity that should be at the forefront of the attention of parliamentarians in the coming weeks anxious to re-assure Tasmanians over the sanctity of licences, permits, compliance and monitoring for the proposed pulp mill. Specifically, it was highly critical of the lack of an effective and centralised management information system. In short, the permit, compliance, enforcement, response and monitoring capacity of the Environment Division – at the time (2002) was being undermined by a lack of an integrated information system. The right hand did not necessarily know what the left hand was doing.
Has this situation been rectified? I can see little reference in the Environment Division public papers to the development and implementation of such a critical system to support its regulatory capacity. I hope this situation can be resolved to the satisfaction of our parliamentarians over the next two weeks?
The Report also highlights the discretionary power of the Director of Environmental Management especially when it relates to the licence provision of large industrial enterprises in Tasmania.
For example, at Norske Skog’s New Norfolk mill effluent discharge limits, as governed by permit conditions were not consistent with Accepted Modern Technology (AMT). Investments at the time to overcome the problem were considered expensive, $30 million. Environmental improvement plans cannot be extended over three years and the Board of Environmental Management and Control (BEMC) was able to agree that the mill had until December 2006 to comply with AMT discharge limits on that condition that the company undertake a series of improvements in line with Best Practice Environmental Management.
By December 2006 presumably Norske Skog was unable to meet the requirements of the agreement because the 2005-2006 Report of the BEMC (p64) indicated approval of a proposal by Norske Skog to install a secondary treatment plant at the Boyer Mill by 2008, and ‘extend the date by which the mill will achieve acceptable modern technology emission limits.’ This situation – where permit conditions have not been consistent with AMT - has been under review since the company initiated its own studies in 1999-2001, when it first came to the attention of the BEMC.
The situation at Norske Skog puts a whole new spin on discretion under the Enforcement Policy for the Environmental Management and Pollution Control Act 1994, another document all Tasmanians should read. This document, prepared in 2004, attempts to clarify the principles, criteria and measures that officers will use to enforce the provisions of the Act. It makes for compelling reading. For example, under Section 5 General Criteria for Enforcement (p6-8) there are 18 specific considerations to be taken into account in determining the need and type of enforcement action. Included in the 18 are the following: the level and nature of public concern and; the age, intelligence, antecedents, background, physical or mental health of the offenders and the witnesses. The mind boggles. Is this meant to be a serious public policy document?
Let us assume so.
What implications should Tasmanians draw from this case study –Norske Skog and the Enforcement Policy - in relation to the proposed pulp mill plant at Long Reach? It would not be ill-informed to view this situation as one where the socio-economic contribution of an enterprise – GSP and employment in a regional town – carried significantly more weight in shaping the discretionary capacity of the Director of Environmental Management, Department of Tourism, Arts and the Environment. Discretion endorsed by the Board of Environmental Management and Pollution Control.
What faith can we have in the assurances that will be attached to the licences, permits, monitoring and compliance attached to the approval of the pulp mill project? On face value – given the levels of political compliance to commercial imperatives witnessed so far - the answer has to be, very little indeed, especially if self-regulation remains the guiding principle of enforcement, monitoring and compliance. The Federal government draft approval requires the proponent – not the CSIRO – to undertake the required effluent dispersal modelling. Presumably, Gunns’ consultant will support the current intention – to deposit 64 million tonnes a year (IIS) of chemical effluent into Bass Strait. What would an independent CSIRO assessment of the dispersal conditions present in Bass Strait indicate? We are unlikely to know.
Gunns’ kraft-chlorine pulp mill will be one of the largest industrial projects in the Southern Hemisphere. The scale and operational capacity have not been tested in Tasmania, and the proponent has no previous experience in running such an industrial enterprise. Vigilance backed up by regulatory capacity must replace discretion and self-regulation.
The pulp mill project cannot be expected to operate under the paucity of legislative compliance attached to the licensing provisions of a waste-water management plant at Wynyard/Waratah Council. Right now, that is what will happen unless something different is proposed and endorsed over the next two weeks.
Finally, I sincerely hope that there is some provision under new legislation – drawn up after the approval of this pulp mill - for independent audits –conducted by the Office of the Auditor General – to assess some of the outrageous socio-economic benefits that will allegedly flow from this project – completely untested by the Lennon government consultant’s socio-economic benefits only study. Those benefits need to be empirically tested, particularly those relating to economic growth forecasts over the lifetime of the mill. If true, Tasmania has found the solution to GSP growth – every state needs at least one pulp mill!!
In addition, we need a comprehensive examination of the costs – the loss of revenue from subsidies for wood resource access, water costs, energy deals etc. Such a study would examine the capital investment costs in terms of road and rail infrastructure support, freight equalisation subsidies, tax subsidies in relation to plantation establishment and any other recognised cost advantage granted to the proponent.
The tracking of employment contract provisions across all sectors attached to the project – particularly wood harvesting contractors and transport operators – would be of interest in terms of ascertaining how competitive pressures are distributed across the supply chain.
The approval of this project will be a significant statement to the rest of the world: Tasmania is open for business but with a vision for our future not attached to our emerging opportunities in the knowledge economy but one firmly attached to the 20th century smoke stack development approaches that continue to operate only on the basis of political patronage and massive public subsidy. There are very few environmental, social and economic imperatives (market, product or branding) that provide a convincing argument for supporting this project and that observation is in addition to the appalling undermining of public administration and public policy that has accompanied this pantomime of an approval process.
Tasmanians need to be reminded that the same people who wanted to dam the Franklin on the basis of ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ are the same people who think building an industrial museum at Long Reach will secure ‘our economy, our jobs, our future’.
Smoke-stack enterprises have never kept our young people in our wonderful state. Not in 1983, less so now. To suggest so is a cruel deceit.
Gunns’ chair, John Gay, promised a project that Tasmanians would be proud of: “Gunns is committed to environmental best practice and constructing the world’s greenest pulp mill that will establish new global benchmarks of excellence”. So far, the only benchmarks of global excellence have been in the area of commercial expediency driving political compliance: dealing making as public policy. Not a project Tasmanians can/should be proud of. It must be reconsidered.
Dr Tony McCall is a fourth generation Tasmanian who lives at Trevallyn, in the Tamar Valley.
Earlier, associated: Michael Stokes
Tony McCall Our Coming Weeks of Shame: Parliament as a Planning Approval and Assessment Authority
THE parliament is our most cherished democratic institution and it is hard to argue against decision-making taking place in that representative forum, but to turn that politically representative forum into a planning approval and assessment authority is a slight on the integrity of the parliament, and its purpose. As such it represents an abuse of executive power: contempt of representative democracy.
As I have claimed publicly: a state of shame.