Gunns’ approval for mill ‘invalid
Matthew Denholm | May 11, 2009
STATE approval for Gunns Tasmanian pulp mill is invalid and wide open to legal challenge, according to an analysis to be published by a leading administrative law expert.
Michael Stokes, University of Tasmania senior law lecturer, told The Australian his detailed analysis revealed an apparent fatal flaw in the mill assessment process.
The flaw was a “time bomb” for the $2 billion bleached eucalypt mill, proposed for the Tamar Valley north of Launceston, providing solid grounds for a legal challenge.
Mr Stokes’s analysis concludes that the assessment of the project by consultants under former premier Paul Lennon’s fast-track process failed to comply with Mr Lennon’s own fast-track legislation.
“These are not just minor, little things; these are big things – it’s quite clear that the assessment done was not mandated by parliament,” Mr Stokes told The Australian.
The Pulp Mill Assessment Act – introduced by the Lennon government to fast-track the mill outside the independent planning process – allows approval for the project if consultants recommend it can proceed.
Under Section 4 of the act, this can only occur after the consultants “undertake an assessment of the project … against the (pulp mill) guidelines”.
However, the consultant hired by the Government – Scandinavian firm Sweco Pic – conceded in their assessment report of June 2007 that they did not assess the project against 15 of the mill guidelines.
Sweco Pic said these guidelines related to “permit conditions, monitoring and the operation of the pulp mill”.
“At this stage of the project development, it is not practical to undertake an assessment of these latter requirements,” their report said.
However, Mr Stokes said it was not open to Sweco Pic to restrict the assessment in this way. “These deficiencies are so major that we don’t have an assessment required by the act,” Mr Stokes said.
“Therefore, there was no power (held by Sweco Pic) to recommend the mill go ahead and therefore the permit is not a valid one.”
Without a valid permit, construction of the mill could not begin and Mr Stokes said the problem could not be easily overcome.
A Gunns spokesman rejected Mr Stokes’s legal analysis as “ridiculous” and insisted the company was confident in the legality of the state approval and permit. However, he would not say whether this view was based on a legal opinion. “We’re not going to make any comment (about that),” he said.
It is understood anti-mill groups are aware of the nature of Mr Stokes’s analysis and that it could be used in a new legal challenge to the project.
Section 11 of the act limits the rights of appeal against any approval or assessment “under this act”, but Mr Stokes said this would not prevent court action if the assessment was invalid.
He also believed that as the permit was in part issued under the State Land Use Planning Approvals Act, it might expire two years after issue – late August this year – unless the mill was “substantially commenced” by that time.
There is speculation this is why Gunns may have recently moved equipment to Tasmania.
Gunns does not yet have federal approval to operate the mill, but has been given federal clearance to begin construction. It is yet to announce a joint venture partner or financier.