Bob Brown has accused the federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, of prioritising industry over the environment by not accepting his invitation to tour Tasmania’s takayna/Tarkine rainforest when she visited the site of a controversial mining proposal.

Plibersek visited Tasmania last week to meet with representatives and workers from the minerals company MMG about its proposal to build a tailings waste dam and pipeline infrastructure in rainforest near the town of Rosebery in the state’s north-west.

She saw the Tarkine – a loosely defined and environmentally diverse area covering at least 439,000 hectares – on the ground and from the air with rangers from the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service. Plibersek later met with traditional owners and environmentalists, including the former federal Greens leader Brown, in Burnie on Friday afternoon.

Brown accused the minister of “going to the industry that causes the damage” but refusing to see the rainforest that would be lost if the development went ahead with people who could explain why it mattered – instead of just talking to them “on the way out”.

“She is supposed to be the minister for the environment but instead she’s there with industry,” he said.

On social media, the organisation he created, the Bob Brown Foundation, posted a photo at a pub in the small Tasmanian west coast town of Tullah from Thursday night, saying Plibersek was dining with industry representatives but had refused to meet with him until the next day, outside the rainforest area. The foundation said it was “an absolute low in Australian environmental history”.

Last night, Australia’s Environment Minister Plibersek dined with senior mining officials not Bob Brown & environmentalists, two tables away, at Tullah, Tasmania. Minister declined invitation to see rainforests with Bob today. An absolute low in Australian environmental history.

— Bob Brown Foundation (@BobBrownFndn) November 3, 2022

Plibersek also gave her account of the trip on social media. The minister will have responsibility for deciding whether to allow drilling and surveying works for the tailings dam.

The works were approved in January by an environment department delegate under the Morrison government environment minister, Sussan Ley. But the decision was overturned in June when the federal court found the government had failed to apply the precautionary principle when assessing whether the works would cause serious or irreversible damage to the habitat of the endangered Tasmanian masked owl.

It meant the MMG proposal would need to be considered again under national environment laws. The owl is listed as endangered in Tasmania, with estimates suggesting it has been reduced to fewer than 500 breeding pairs.

In a series of social media posts on Friday afternoon, Plibersek said she had spent two days in north-west Tasmania “visiting the beautiful takayna/Tarkine” and meeting with workers from the 85-year-old zinc, copper and lead mine.

I’ve spent the last two days in northwest Tasmania visiting the beautiful takayna/Tarkine rainforest and I wanted to share what I’ve been up to.

— Tanya Plibersek (@tanya_plibersek) November 4, 2022

“I take these decisions seriously,” she said. “That’s why I wanted to see the area for myself – to consider the environmental impact on this special part of Australia, understand the cultural and heritage significance, and to hear the views of the local community.

I also met with workers from a zinc and copper mine that’s been operating in the area for over 85 years.

The mine is seeking federal government approval for a new dam. I take these decisions seriously.

— Tanya Plibersek (@tanya_plibersek) November 4, 2022

“I’ll carefully consider what I’ve seen and heard in making a decision, as I am required to do by law. For now, I have to be careful about what I say publicly, because any suggestion I have prejudged a decision could see it challenged in court.”

That’s why I wanted to see the area for myself – to consider the environmental impact on this special part of Australia, understand the cultural and heritage significance, and to hear the views of the local community.

— Tanya Plibersek (@tanya_plibersek) November 4, 2022

MMG told the Launceston Examiner that Plibersek’s office requested the visit as part of her assessment, and it respected and understood the time the minister was taking to weigh all aspects of the application.

The majority-Chinese-owned company says a new tailings dam is needed to extend the life of the mine, which employs about 500 staff and contractors. If the dam is approved, the company expects to clear up to 285 hectares – roughly equivalent to 350 football pitches – of rainforest and other terrain for the dam and a 3.5km pipe that would carry toxic waste from the mine across the Pieman River. It says the proposed dam site is the only viable option to replace two nearly filled dams in 2024.

Plibersek urged to give Tarkine World Heritage status, not waste dump. Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, left Tasmania having not seen the Masked Owl breeding territory and Tarkine rainforest whose fate she is about to decide. A failed opportunity to see what is at stake.

— Bob Brown Foundation (@BobBrownFndn) November 4, 2022

The Bob Brown Foundation says crossing the river places the tailings dam inside the Tarkine, an environmentally diverse area that has never been formally recognised, but which the Australian Heritage Council 10 years ago recommended should be protected as it had “outstanding national heritage significance”. The then Labor federal government largely ignored its advice, protecting only a 2km strip near the coast for its rich Indigenous heritage.

The Tarkine includes beaches, buttongrass moorland, wild rivers and unique cave formations. It is best known as home to the world’s second-largest temperate rainforest and Aboriginal shell middens. Some parts have been mined and logged over a long period, but significant sections remain untouched by development. The Bob Brown Foundation wants the entire area added to the Tasmanian world heritage wilderness area and says there are other options open to MMG to store mine waste.

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