20 June, 2011

Call for inquiry as salvaged wood exported

Josh Gordon
The Age, June 20, 2011

THE Ombudsman has been asked to investigate VicForests for allowing thousands of tonnes of wood salvaged from the Black Saturday bushfires to be exported to China in breach of a government contract.

The Wilderness Society has lodged a complaint with Ombudsman George Brouwer after VicForests confirmed a private company, Pinex Logging, had breached a contract to process the logs locally to protect jobs in the Victorian timber industry.

VicForests initially agreed to supply the company with 145,000 tonnes of logs to process in Victoria, an amount that was later cut to 50,000 tonnes.

A VicForests statement provided to The Age reveals VicForests has now suspended supplying logs to the company while it investigates how the breach occurred. The statement said the company was initially meeting contractual requirements for local processing.

''VicForests is clarifying the circumstances which led to the export of some logs before processing,'' the statement says. ''The customer [Pinex Logging] has indicated the increased value of the Australian dollar has put pressure on their operations in recent times.''

The Wilderness Society revealed tens of thousands of tonnes of hardwood logs were being loaded into shipping containers at a log yard in Melbourne's west and sent to China.

Wilderness Society campaigns manager Richard Hughes said an independent investigation was needed as ''VicForests has a serious conflict of interest in this matter''.

''VicForests sold the logs to the exporter for at least $3.5 million so they have profited from this venture and if it is stopped they will miss out on future timber royalties, adding to their current major financial problems,'' Mr Hughes said.

Mr Hughes said he found it difficult to believe VicForests was unaware the company was breaching the contract because it pays and directs the trucking contractors who have been delivering the timber to the export yard, where there are no timber processing facilities.

''It's not appropriate to have VicForests leading this investigation - they are are not an independent regulator, and there are grounds to suspect they have either been complicit in the export operation or negligent in not stopping it earlier,'' Mr Hughes said.

A spokeswoman for the Ombudsman would not comment on whether the issue would be the subject of an investigation. VicForests spokesman David Walsh said the wood would have gone to waste had the trees killed or severely damaged in the 2009 bushfires not been harvested.

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