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Issue # 1404      25 March 2009


Gunns legal attack backfires

Last week, opponents of timber corporation Gunns Ltd’s proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill rejoiced when the Supreme Court ordered the company to pay the $350,000 legal costs which the Wilderness Society had incurred in a civil action for damages brought against it by Gunns. The company’s case against three of the Society’s members, Alec Marr, Heidi Douglas and Leanne Minshull, has now been discontinued. A remaining action against the Huon Valley Environment Centre and six other individuals is expected to collapse in the light of the judgement.

It’s not all good news. As a result of the court action the Wilderness Society has agreed to pay Gunns $25,000 in damages for a protest in the Styx Valley in 2003, and the Society and other defendants have already paid out $45,000 in damages to the corporation. In a different case last year the Society was also ordered to pay Gunns’ legal costs after the Society lost an appeal over the federal government’s environmental approval process for the pulp mill. The amount of legal costs in that case has yet to be determined by the Court.

However, the amounts the Society will have to pay for the court judgements to date pale into insignificance compared to Gunns’ legal costs. The result is all the more galling in light of the company’s original damages claim, which was for $6.9 million, and the huge expense of the public relations campaign it waged in order to justify its actions against the Wilderness Society.

There is still a huge way to go before the pulp mill proposal can be brought to its knees. One of the biggest obstacles is the federal government. Despite having identified a number of serious concerns about the impact the mill would have on the Tamar environment, Peter Garrett, the federal Environment Minister, recently granted a number of approvals for the project, as a result of which construction of the mill can begin.

He also extended the project’s approval time, so that Gunns’ can complete studies into the impact of mill on the marine environment. At the moment it is estimated that some 64,000 tonnes of toxic waste would be pumped into the Tamar River, ending up in the waters of the Tamar Estuary and Bass Strait. The mill would strip timber from existing old growth forests during the first few years of its operation, and would emit hazardous aerial pollution into a valley whose atmospheric inversion layer already claims about eight premature deaths per year.

The Wilderness Society commented: “Minister Garrett has allowed the ludicrous situation where construction on the mill can begin, without a full understanding of the impacts that running the mill would have on the marine environment and native forest ecosystems. Mr Garrett has allowed the cart to go before the horse, for construction to begin before he knows all of the environmental impacts.”

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court judgement against Gunns has to be considered a great win, and will strengthen the will of the mill’s opponents. The company’s attempt to bully and muzzle its critics by massive legal action has failed ignominiously. This has been the biggest legal fiasco since the McLibel case, which taught every other corporation that suing community groups was a bad idea. After spending probably $3 million of shareholders’ money claiming that the Wilderness Society organised a grand conspiracy against them, Gunns has now had to drop claims against the Wilderness Society and pay us money.

“The legal action was rubbish from the start”, said the Wilderness Society, “and we are proud not only to have won the case today, but also to have continued to campaign for the protection of forests and against Gunns’ destructive pulp mill.”

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