Letter 8; failure of RPDC to respond to submissions from TAP

To: Resource Development and Planning Commission enquiry@rpdc.tas.gov.au and Pam.Scott@rpdc.tas.gov.au

Submitted on 16 February 2007


First, we welcome the new Commissioners to the task and trust that they are allowed to discharge their responsibilities fully. During the rest of this ‘approval’ process, we trust that the Commission can appreciate that a venture as large as the mill proposal could have profound consequences for Tasmania, its peoples and its businesses, and that many of those consequences could be negative. TAP been asked by many to adopt a role representing community interests, a role which may not sit comfortably with the structure of the process designed by the government which has attempted to separate substantial impacts from the proposal and conceal them from scrutiny, and does not countenance potential negatives. The population and businesses of Northern Tasmania have to work out how to live with a ‘world scale’ pulp mill, and for many the aura of secrecy and the adversarial approach taken by mill proponents, is creating disquiet.

Another difficulty is that parliamentarians and government departments are unwilling to discuss the mill openly with the public, constantly pointing to the RPDC as being the only party with whom to discuss mill concerns. This is inadequate as many of the public’s concerns are outside the RPDC’s control (e.g. funding of responses, monitoring regimes) and, given the Commission’s decision as final and unappealable, many are concerned that vital considerations will ‘slip through the cracks’. Add to this the proponent’s demands for subsidies, rapid decisions and ever more considerations and we get a decision environment that appears to be designed to stimulate uncertainty and fear.

TAP has submitted several key issues and queries to the Commission last year but the RPDC has not responded to any of them, although submissions from the Greens and TWS have been handled. We write to ask you to correct that deficiency.

We also ask that you correct the bias created by the design of the pulp mill approval process (see attached diagram) which allows many potentially significant issues to be legally ignored (e.g. marine ecology). The process bias is exacerbated by the government distorting the whole system in favour of the proponent by;

  • providing the proponent with full access to government services while denying access to the community and forcing them to represent themselves (violates United Nations Charter of Human Rights which states that all citizens should have equal access to their public services);
  • leaving impacts of ‘world scale’ logging, including agricultural and tourism disruption, losses of rural community cash flows and plantation water use (around 1,100 Gl/yr for the mill and chip exports) and leaching of toxins into the water supplies of rural communities;
  • expecting the community to mount a reasoned response to a 7,000+ page document in 60 days that didn’t contain enough detail to highlight all the hazards, threats and exposures; and
  • funding a pulp mill ‘task force’ acting for the proponent yet providing no similar business or industry task force to argue for essential industries threatened by the proposal (e.g. tourism).

These distortions produce uncertainties that concern people and businesses. Placing businesses in a situation where each must represent their own business gives no confidence that the protection of Tasmania’s existing industries will be treated seriously or acted upon effectively. How can fishermen (for example) invest in new boats or equipment without the confidence that the marine environment is being fully protected? How can country communities plan when their farms are being bought up as plantations subsidised by 100% tax deductions and communities can see their cash flows drying up?

The scale, location and resources required by the proposal are likely to threaten any industry, business or person that plans to use the same resources or infrastructures that the proponent is claiming. These threats are particularly severe where the proponent’s plans are to remove the resource entirely (e.g. forests) and where their plans threaten common resources (e.g. rural water supplies, air quality, road access etc). Most of these impacts are hidden by their exclusion from RPDC consideration and have been dismissed by the proponent.

Of greatest concern are the:

  1. relative intensity of logging proposed is over 15 times the extraction rate of logging in the rest of Australia and will affect huge land areas (about 40% of Tasmania) and populations. Wood supply activities threaten tourism, recreation, agriculture, water availability/purity and rural community cash flows;
  2. area potentially affected by aerial pollutants from the mill which threatens a population of some 100,000 persons in the Tamar region; and
  3. marine environment of Bass Strait, particularly given its slow flush times and currents that could carry toxins down the East coast, the whole threatening a $450 million per year fishing industry in Tasmania.

The impacts of ‘world scale’ wood supply 1) above, are excluded from consideration even though the industries affected could lose more than $15 billion over the life of the mill, significantly more if water remains scarce and the plantations induce an artificial drought. The threats at 2) are sufficient to have caused ex RPDC pulp and paper scientist Dr. Raverty to make his concerns public and to propose the mill location as entirely inappropriate. Clearly the Tamar could become an undesirable place to live and work if things don’t go as promised. Concerns at 3) are exacerbated by an entirely inadequate description of the marine environment provided by the proponent in the draft IIS.

These threats are not something that industries, businesses or citizens can afford to take lightly. Overall the operations of the mill could adversely affect nearly a quarter of a million people unless properly and effectively planned, controlled and regulated.

The scale and location of the mill means that multiple disciplines need to be involved in designing a way forward that protects existing industries and populations. These disciplines include marine ecology, toxicology, hydro geology, agriculture, tourism and so on yet it is clear that requisite information from these disciplines has not been developed in the IIS, nor have the impacts on affected industries and communities been properly defined.

The RPDC’s decisions rely on the accuracy and completeness of information provided by a proponent who has a conflict of interest; whose Articles of Association force them to focus solely on profit rather than on socially responsible operations; and who clearly lacks the requisite expertise to define impacts of their operation on many diverse industries (e.g. tourism, fisheries). The total of this bias contradicts any appearance of fairness or equal access thereby fuelling community and business concerns that approval will be given without adequate protections being implemented for their industries and communities.

The government’s positive hype also deters any rational identification or discussion of potential problems that genuinely concern people. This creates a situation where critical issues can easily be missed (e.g. threats to Australia’s wild fish brand) and people get frustrated and angry when they cannot get satisfactory answers to their concerns.

For example, we have written to you previously to challenge the validity, legality and ethos of leaving issues of wood supply from consideration. We believe that our submissions of 15 Nov and 17 Dec 06 advised that the rationale for the exclusion presented by the proponent appears based on false or misleading information, and consequently is in breach of the RPDC Act Sec 17 (1). Given the scope and scale of impacts excluded, and the size and importance of the population affected, then either the proponent should be charged under Sec 17 (1) or the Commission should advert why not. We do not understand how the exclusion can remain if the Commission is to achieve its charter of reviewing ‘all’ impacts.

Given the bias in the system and the process, businesses and industries would be ill advised to rely on adequate protection being provided for them by the RPDC process alone, particularly as the conditions for approval may not be known until it is given whereupon the decision cannot be appealed. This alone is a recipe for increasing community fear and fuelling business uncertainty, even desperation for those under greatest threat from the proposal.

In this environment, the RPDC’s lack of responsiveness to legitimate queries and challenges results in additional bias by delaying critical matters until it is too late for communities, businesses and industries to protect themselves (e.g. by selling up, changing crops etc). We argue that failures to protect existing industries could be disastrous for Tasmania as the detriments could more than offset the mill’s supposed benefits to the community.

To protect existing industries, we need to have multiple levels of safety in place for land, sea, air, water and roads, ranging from preventive measures at the mill to high standards, independent monitoring schedules and rigorous enforcement regimes and laws to control outputs. Yet none of this is being discussed publicly which appears to indicate that these protections are not being properly designed. Indeed the pulp mill task force has already told us that the mill operators will be ‘self monitoring’, another high risk strategy for the community. Under what circumstances does the government imagine mill operators will report themselves to a regulator for possible sanctions?

Further suspicion is being created by withholding the financial details of the wood supply agreement from the resource owners - the public. This is one of the largest contracts ever in Australia, yet there have been no competitive tenders, no disclosure, no inspection and the public is asked to take on faith that it will be economically beneficial. This theory forms part of the underpinning of the justification for a pulp mill. We have challenged this secrecy openly to the RPDC but again, have received no response. While many of these items may be beyond the remit of the RPDC, they are of concern to the public as they affect the rationale for this proposal and our future environment.

Despite the political hand-wringing, it is clear that the public must seek to be represented by its paid representatives on many of these matters. We are paying one of the highest tax rates in the world yet are being told to represent ourselves and to produce our own scientific proofs regarding this ‘world scale’ proposal while simultaneously funding the proponent’s efforts, the pulp mill task force and the RPDC itself.

We ask therefore, that the Commission treat us equally to the Greens and TWS, and provide us with an authoritative and complete response to our previous correspondence within 10 days so that we can advise those concerned of their options for protecting their futures, their businesses, and their quality of life. We have copied this to the relevant Ministers with a view to alerting them to the critical need for the protection of existing industries and resources (e.g. water) to form a critical part of any planning regime, particularly this one.

Robert McMahon, TAP