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This charcoal factory deal is a dirty business - can someone clear it up?

By Peter Hill - posted Sunday, 15 September 2002

The New South Wales Government has approved a plan to establish a charcoal factory at Broulee on the NSW South Coast. The area of the factory is to be 73 hectares, which is equivalent to 107 rugby-league football fields. The factory will initially have five chimneys about 33m (11 storeys) high. The factory is to supply charcoal to a proposed silicon plant in Lithgow and is to double in size in the coming years.

The charcoal factory in Broulee, up till now a peaceful seaside village that lives on tourism, will operate 24 hours a day for 350 days of the year. Any toxins produced by this plant may fall in the immediate vicinity or many kilometres away, depending on weather conditions.

Proponents of the plant claim that the fall-out in the form of dioxins, furans, mercury and ultrafine particulate matter is negligible, that they have ways of disposing of the toxic sludge and that the dangers of explosions on the site are manageable.


The Environmental Impact Statement submitted by the company, Australian Silicon, as part of its development application, admitted a few environmental problems here and there. For instance, problems with noise have not been solved. Some 1,500 submissions to Planning NSW and the responsible Minister, Dr Andrew Refshauge, demonstrated that the Environmental Impact Statement had been put together in great haste and with little attention to detail, apparently as the authors did not believe that anything that they wrote would play any significant role in the planning process.

The state government had - wisely from its own point of view - wrested responsibility for the planning decision from the Eurobodalla Shire Council by declaring the project to be one of "state significance". The local residents, the Eurobodalla Shire Council, the Batemans Bay Chamber of Commerce and the Eurobodalla Tourism Board all came out unequivocally against the project. No one has been able to explain why a charcoal factory should be built in a beachside resort and within three km of four schools.

Silicon may be part of the modern world but burning forests to produce charcoal is a mediaeval technology. Australian science has already come up with a contemporary solution - ultra-clean coal. State Forests of NSW claims that they will be supplying only waste wood - 200,000 tonnes of it from just 40,000 tonnes of sawlogs. Because that didn’t add up they embarked on a program of poisoning trees.

Once these poisoned trees fall to the ground they can be classified as "waste wood". This program of poisoning trees was officially stopped when it became known, but in fact continued for some time after that. It is worth noting that the plans for the charcoal factory submitted by Australian Silicon show stockpiles of logs, not branches and leaves!

The project is predicated by the supply of timber at rock-bottom rates by State Forests of NSW and heavily subsidised electricity rates in Lithgow. The charcoal produced in the Broulee plant is to be transported north up the Princes Highway, which will have to be massively upgraded - all these subsidies to be paid for by taxpayers.

However, logging trucks will also use the Kings Highway over the Clyde Mountain. Because of the terrain, the Kings Highway cannot be substantially improved. Here the costs will take the form of increased road accidents and constant threats to the lifeline between the ACT and the Eurobodalla Shire, which have strong economic links.


The whole affair raises interesting questions about our supposedly democratic system. It is an open secret that Bob Carr hopes to win a few votes in the marginal seat of Bathurst by building a silicon smelter in Lithgow. He can afford to antagonise 30,000 residents of the Eurobodalla because they live in safe Coalition seats.

Under a proportional system of voting, such as those used in the ACT, Tasmania, New Zealand and most European countries, such manoeuvres don’t pay off because the overall number of votes influences the final make-up of the Parliament.

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About the Author

Professor Peter Hill is a Visiting Fellow at the School of Language Studies and School of Social Sciences at Australian National University.

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