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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

Gunns pulp mill

Interview with Tim Cox, ABC Statewide Mornings
6 January 2009

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COX : Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, a very good morning to you.

GARRETT: Morning, Tim.

COX : Can you explain for us what is the significance of the 26 months' time line for this? And of course, what it does is make this very much a live issue for the next state and, for that matter, the next federal election as well.

GARRETT: The 26-month time line is the period that will enable the hydro-dynamic modelling, the real-time modelling to be done. That's always been estimated taking between 12 and 18 months. And then a sufficient period of time following that for the scientific evaluation to consider that modelling to identify whether there's any other additional measures that need to be put in place, response strategies and the like, and for those to be agreed in order to determine whether or not a final approval can be given.

COX : Let's say that beyond that 26-month period, would you really say no to the operation of the mill if it had been constructed and was ready to operate if the only thing approved - or not approved, I should say - was these three modules?

GARRETT: There's absolutely no doubt, Tim, that until these three modules have been approved, then the mill cannot start to operate or to function. And that's my legal responsibility as Minister, and I take it very seriously, and that's what I do.

COX : So would you - we've just heard you in the news saying that there are issues that Gunns need to address before it begins construction; it's a risk for them to take if they so choose.

I presume though you're aware of the time line for them with plant, et cetera, et cetera. Is there - would you be building a mill if you were in John Gay's shoes?

GARRETT: Well, that's up to Mr Gay, and I'm not going to take hypotheticals from you, Tim.

What I would say is that if Gunns are able to conclude and we can conclude the period of the hydrodynamic assessment - that modelling - in less than 26 months, then that's good. I've set a period there which I think is sufficient to enable the inevitable delays that tend to come with this sort of work. If it can be done more quickly - it clearly has to take at least 12 months because you're looking for real-time modelling, particularly in terms of effluent dispersal and different ocean currents and different seasons and the like.

But at the end of the day, Minister Turnbull, when he was Environment Minister, approved this mill. He laid down 48 conditions - you know this stuff very well - and each of those conditions applies to the approvals process. He separated it out in terms of modules. My job as Federal Environment Minister is to see whether or not these modules, as they come to me, are capable of being approved, if they're having an impact on matters of national environment significance.

If they're not and the measures in place are appropriate, according to the conditions laid down by Mr Turnbull, then they are approved. If they're not and if there is going to be an impact on matters of national environment significance, then there's the inevitable process of determining what measures and strategies are necessary to make sure that there isn't that impact. Now, that obviously goes to the question of additional technologies, potential tertiary treatment and the like.

But any questions about whether or not it should or shouldn't be built are for Gunns. And frankly, any questions about whether or not what will or won't happen need to be, in a sense, answered once we've actually got the response and the results of the work that I've required needs to be done before an approval can be given.

COX : I presume Gunns would be liable for any cost associated with tertiary treatment should it be deemed necessary?

GARRETT: That would be my understanding, yes.

COX: And have you given any consideration in this to cutting out the middle man, the proponent in Gunns, and instead of getting them to do the modelling and then having it reviewed by an expert group, why not get the expert group to do the modelling to see if it can be done, which would save time? I presume it would save money for Gunns and it would mean that the Government then would own that information; you would then have all the information you and any subsequent environment minister would need about the modelling for Bass Strait.

GARRETT: Well, Tim, the letter that I wrote to Gunns yesterday refers to modules L, M and N, which are pre-commissioning the monitoring and the response strategy modules.

Now, those modules have already been significantly worked up between the department, the Independent Experts Group and Gunns, and I'm satisfied with the framework that exists within those modules. And it is exhaustive and comprehensive and it's based on the best available scientific evidence as to what hydro-dynamic modelling should take place, how it should operate and the like.

So it's now a question for that work to take place, to be undertaken and to be done in such a way that I've got the relevant material I need in front me, as Environment Minister, when the work is completed to make any determination that I need to.

COX : Interesting to hear from Calton Frame from Gunns earlier this morning on this new condition that you announced yesterday, which is for criminal and civil sanctions up to $1.1 million fines, et cetera. Calton Frame was saying that he suggested that - or that Gunns at least - suggested that that sort of sanction be part of it.

Has anyone ever been charged like this under the EPBC Act?

GARRETT: There have been some charges made under the EPBC Act in respect of breach of conditions in the past. To my knowledge and in my time as Environment Minister, that has been the case.

In relation to a Commonwealth approval or Commonwealth conditions of a pulp mill, I can't answer that question. I'd have to go back and take advice and see whether that's been the case or not.

But it is true that Gunns proposed a different way of dealing with the issue of exceeding the maximum permissible limits in terms of the effluent. It isn't the case, from memory, that they were seeking to have the sanctions apply to them that I've applied. But it is the case that they proposed a different way of treating that particular matter, because what happened under Malcolm Turnbull's conditions is that if the maximum permissible levels were exceeded, then in some instances the mill would have had to shut down. But that can quite often produce an effect which is worse for the environment than if it were allowed to continue and you simply had less material or you effectively adjusted your maximum permissible limits in the following months.

Now, that, from recollection, is what Gunns' proposal was, and I think that that was a sensible proposal. But what I've said is that this should be a condition of the approval, and once it's a condition of the approval, if there is an exceeding of the maximum permissible limits, then civil and criminal sanctions can and would apply.

COX : Well, the State Government said that if it exceeds it, that the mill in fact will be shut down, under Section 11, that - it's been discussed this morning, which we need to get to in a moment as well, but the mill will stop operating if it goes outside the guidelines.

GARRETT: Well, that's right, and that would be the case from the state's perspective in relation to it exceeding the guidelines. But what I've said, from a Commonwealth point of view in terms of putting conditions on a final approval - and remember, what we're talking about has not yet been approved - but in terms of putting conditions on a final approval, what we're saying is that it makes more sense for there to be a mechanism in place which enables you to look at reducing the load in, say, a following month than necessarily shutting down a mill each and every time, because to shut it down and then start it up again may produce more impact on the environment than is desirable.

Now, it is the case that the state regulations provide for shut-down. So would the federal conditions, but in some instances it may be the case that you would say and agree, well, the mill won't be shut down because it would provide more - less protection for the environment for that to take place, but that if the appropriate response strategies aren't in place and if there's been an exceedance which breaches the condition, then the sanctions would apply.

So in a sense, what you've done is double the capacity for making sure that there isn't maximum exceedance. You've got the provision for shut-down, but you've also got the provision for criminal sanctions and civil sanctions.

COX : Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, here on 936 ABC Hobart and ABC Northern Tasmania at 14 past nine.

So given the weight of penalty available to the Federal Government in relation to the operation of the mill, do you believe, Minister, there should be some form of redress or compensation for areas that are under the control of the State Government?

GARRETT: It's a matter for the state, Tim. My decision-making under this particular proposal has always been very clear and I've always been at pains to point it out to people - and I know that sometimes people listening say, oh, you know, we hear Peter talking like a lawyer. This happened when we went to Launceston and we were speaking to people there at the Community Cabinet. But the fact is that I inherited an approval from Malcolm Turnbull; it had 48 conditions in place. And my responsibilities as Federal Environment Minister are very clear. They're to do with the national environment significant matters.

Now, in relation to those matters, I apply myself diligently, I take the advice, the briefs from the department, the scientific advice, legal advice and the like, and I make the decisions on that basis.

I have to be extremely diligent in doing that and not take into account a range of other ancillary matters, critical or important as they may be, whether they're state matters or other matters, because my decision-making is focused specifically on being consistent with not only the conditions that Malcolm Turnbull put in place - in some instances we've strengthened them but also with the act that I'm required to administer.

COX : We need to leave it there, Peter Garrett, but thank you very much for your time this morning.

GARRETT: Thanks, Tim.

COX : Peter Garrett, Federal Environment Minister.


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