Sunday, June 25, 2006

6: Outside the Environment

Now for that sentence in the concluding dot points of the Pulp Mill Task Force report on which I promised an autopsy. An autopsy is customarily performed on a corpse. The following sentence has very nearly attained that state of expiration I think you will agree. Remember, the mill in question is the CELCO mill 50 kilometres from the city of Valdivia.

“The mill location and wastewater discharge point were not ideal, with unfavourable dispersion characteristics in the regional airshed and a sensitive aquatic receiving environment”. It was the last phrase, “a sensitive aquatic receiving environment”, which woke me from the coma into which I was inexorably slipping during the reading of the report. This was language designed to deceive. This was sludge to match the sludge pumped into the river by CELCO. What terrible bad luck for CELCO to have pumped its effluent into something so exceptional as an ordinary river. There is an implication here that the company is the victim of an “aquatic receiving environment” that did not deliver as it should, an ‘insensitive’ receptacle for filth, sorry ‘wastewater’, but a ‘sensitive’ one.

And where should they have pumped their effluent in order to avoid such an unfortunate calamity (to themselves)? Move to the next dot point in which the authors, Messrs Johnson and Tomat, write that CELCO made a poor decision “discharging to the Cruces River rather than (the) sea”. Of course! The sea! The archetypal, insensitive “aquatic receiving environment”, the long-suffering, ever-forgiving, infinitely capacious dump of the sea. So ‘insensitive’ is the sea as an “aquatic receiving environment” it may well be considered completely outside the environment. If only the company hadn’t allowed the emotional appeals of a bunch of small time fishermen to dissuade it from going for the ‘outside the environment’ option from the start.

It’s back to square one for CELCO. The company is legally bound to desist from discharging effluent into the rio Cruces and come up with an alternative location by March 2006, and have that implemented by June 2007. In addition, it must also restore the ecological system of the Sanctuary. Dr. Jaramillo will lead the team of approximately 25 people which will oversee the restoration, a programme run by the Universidad Austral de Chile and financed by the company.

The Pulp Mill Task Force report does not pursue the implications for the Tamar Region of the lessons learnt in Valdivia. It should have. If there were “unfavourable dispersion characteristics in the regional airshed” in Valdivia, then how unfavourable will be the notorious temperature inversion of the Tamar Valley in fostering ‘dispersion’? How about the prevailing north-westerly air movement straight up the Tamar Valley? There is much to be learnt from the Chile experience which the report does not discuss.

I fear for the marine environment of the Tamar estuary and the coastline of north-east Tasmania if the proposed Tamar pulp mill goes ahead and its effluent is pumped into Bass Strait off Four Mile Bluff. I know the shallow sea of Bass Strait, with its beautiful coastline and powerful tidal surge up the Tamar estuary, is a “sensitive aquatic receiving environment”. But how sensitive is a case for study. We have no comprehensive picture of the ecology of the marine environment. Wide-ranging and very detailed baseline studies of the aquatic environment in the estuary, the Strait and the coastline must be undertaken.

Knowing what we know of the ecological catastrophe in the rio Cruces Santuario de Naturaleza, can we really be so ‘dumb’ as to allow history to repeat itself here?


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