The controversy over the role of chemicals in Tasmania’s timber
industry has provoked an aggressive response.
Macken’s article begins:

Life in Tasmania’s timber industry looks so bright investors have to
wear shades. The state’s biggest company, Gunns, has just announced a record half-year profit of $38.7 million and selected the site for its $1 billion pulp mill.

What’s more, Gunns hasn’t had to worry about any pesky critics thanks to an Australian first using writs against critics who have raised concerns about the chemicals the company uses.

Doctors say Gunns’ tactic not only endangers their capacity to speak out in this case, but also threatens to stymie debate on a range of public health issues.

While not wanting to speak directly about the current court action against Hobart physician Frank Nicklason and others, the Australian Medical Association’s federal president, Bill Glasson, says: “Our Hippocratic oath demands we investigate any possible cause of disease, whatever that may be tobacco, asbestos or any other concerns.

“It would be a dangerous development if doctors faced legal action any time they raised concerns about public health risks.”

A spokesperson for Gunns says the company “would not comment on that response because the case is currently before the courts”.

Macken explains SLAPP writs:

Gunns’ approach in the courts resembles the SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) attacks common in the United States.

SLAPPs aim to prevent companies coming under adverse public scrutiny. The most famous and long-running example is the McLibel case that has just arisen with Lazarus-like timing in the European Court.

The strategy works most effectively when the threat of court action silences critics because once a case comes to court the discovery process means the ever-present media are able to sit in court and, potentially, hear revelation after revelation concerning company practice. In this way the company not only loses control over the flow of information, but it can also lose control of public relations.

Macken says that:

… when the Nicklason case is heard in the Supreme Court in Victoria some time this year, there’s likely to be evidence showing how industrial-scale clear-fell logging in Tasmania depends on the use of a host of chemicals particularly the triazine family including atrazine and simazine to hinder undergrowth. The World Health Organisation has classified these chemicals as 2B possibly carcinogenic. The US Environmental Protection Agency has recently classified them in the category of “endocrine disruptor” chemicals that can affect the hormone system.

Despite Gunns’ litigation, critics are still raising concerns about chemicals and the timber industry.

Last Friday, political analyst Tony McCall suggested on ABC radio the company was already moving away from a promise made last year that it would use world’s best practice and avoid applying chlorine dioxide to pulp as a bleaching agent.

Yesterday Alison Bleaney, a GP in St Helens on the state’s north-east coast, again went public with research she says could suggest a link between increased levels of cancer in the region and the expansion of the eucalypt plantations and therefore an increased use of atrazine and simazine.

“I have worked as a GP in this area for 15 years,” she tells The Australian Financial Review. “In the past five years there has been a dramatic change in the health profile of the community and we need to find out why.”

She and Marcus Scammell, a marine ecologist at Sydney Water, submitted the findings of their research in a briefing paper to the AMA in January. They found that after screening out cancers unrelated to biocides cancers unlikely to be associated with catchment contamination the incidence of cancers related to endocrine disruptors like digestive tract cancers, breast, prostate and cervical cancer all showed a statistical increase post 2002.

Consequently, they are calling for a chemical audit of the area and a risk assessment of all the chemicals routinely sprayed through the catchment area.

The federal AMA says its public health committee “has recommended that water quality should be treated as a major national public health issue following examination of a Tasmanian report into the effects of aerial spraying in water catchment areas”.

A spokesperson for Gunns questions the science behind Scammell and Bleaney’s report. “We haven’t sprayed atrazine or simazine since 2002 in the Georges Bay catchment.”

But according to Scammell, these cancers have long lead times, “so if there is a problem, we shall continue to see increases in the rate of cancers associated with endocrine disruptors like atrazine and simazine”.

The Director of Public Health in Tasmania, Roscoe Taylor, concedes there have been a number of contamination events within Tasmania’s water supply, the most recent being the contamination of the Orford water supply twice over the past six months. The source of the contamination is unknown.

But he maintains “there is very little water contamination” in the state and he’s not convinced the St Helen’s area has any problem beyond the national average.

Macken concludes:

Will the controversy over the Gunns 20 and the role of chemicals stop the Bell Bay mill?

According to an institutional investor in Gunns, the strategy was designed to keep critics of the company distracted and anxious while Gunns got the pulp mill up and running.

“After that, all bets are off because no one would shut down an operation that generates hundreds of jobs,” he says.

Author: Julie Macken with AAP
Date: 02/03/2005
Publication: Australian Financial Review
Section: News
Page: 61

These are extracts from the:
The Australian Financial Review