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N.S. wants more information about Northern Pulp wastewater plan


The Northern Pulp mill at Abercombie Point, Pictou County in 2014. - Christian Laforce / File
The Northern Pulp mill at Abercombie Point, Pictou County in 2014. - Christian Laforce / File

Northern Pulp’s future in the province appears uncertain at best.

The Environment Department on Friday identified 19 key deficiencies in the company’s proposed treatment facility project that was registered with the province in early February.

“There is not enough information in this submission to properly assess the impacts on the environment of Nova Scotia,” Environment Minister Margaret Miller said in issuing the decision.

The minister told Northern Pulp to submit a focus report, the terms of reference for which will be provided to the company by April 24. The company will then have up to a year to submit the supplementary report.

However, the 2015 Boat Harbour Act dictates that the current treatment facility must be shut down by Jan. 31, 2020. The Pictou County mill can’t produce its tens of thousands of tonnes of Kraft pulp annually without a plant to treat and discharge some 80 million litres of wastewater daily.

Brian Baarda, CEO of Paper Excellence Canada, the parent company of Northern Pulp, told reporters at Province House that the additional studies required for a focus report would take at least six to nine months. A company spokesperson said the treatment facility and a pipeline to the Northumberland Strait will take about 18 months to build and construction can only start after the Environment Department gives its OK.

Extension and assertions

A mill shutdown, either temporary or permanent, is unavoidable unless the Boat Harbour closure date is extended.

“If we do not get an extension from the government, that will mean we shut down operations in Nova Scotia,” Baarda said in a news release.

But he would not go that far during live interviews and Premier Stephen McNeil, too, seemed to step back from previous statements that ruled out an extension.

“Clearly, with the January 2020 deadline, we’re not going to be able to meet that deadline given this new information,” Baarda said.

“Our concern is that this puts the livelihood of not only 330 mill employees at risk but it also puts the 11,500 other people who work in this industry at risk.”

Asked several times about the possibility of an extension to closing Boat Harbour, McNeil said “the reality of it is the company needs to do the work.”

“They need to be more focused on today and finding out whether or not they can put a treatment centre there that meets the environmental regulations of the province.

“They will decide to do it or not.”

Baarda said a temporary shutdown of the mill is not feasible.

“We don’t want to walk away, this is a good facility, a world-class facility, and it’s going to become a better facility with the new effluent treatment plant,” Baarda said. “We are committed to the province, these employees and the people who are supported by this industry.”

It was that commitment that translated into plans for a new wastewater treatment plant to replace the existing Boat Harbour facility that has been receiving and treating mill wastewater for more than five decades.

New facility and community activism

The Boat Harbour treatment site processes wastewater from the Northern Pulp mill.
The Boat Harbour treatment site processes wastewater from the Northern Pulp mill.

Once treated in the new facility, the proposal would have effluent flow through an 11.4-kilometre pipeline along Highway 106 to the marine environment near the Northumberland Ferries terminal and then through another 4.1 kilometres of pipeline through Caribou Harbour to the Northumberland Strait, where it would be discharged through a diffuser.

The overall plan has been vigorously opposed by residents, fishermen, tourism operators and environmental activists. Many of their concerns can be found among the 19 deficiencies the minister identified in the company’s assessment application that require additional information.

The minister asked for more detailed information on the potential impact to human health, wastewater composition, an alternative to the overland pipeline route proposed to run along the shoulder of Highway 106, effluent flow data and more baseline information about marine and freshwater fish and fish habitat, marine water and air quality and the effect on flora, fauna, plants and birds.

“Northern Pulp’s proposal lacked a lot of baseline information,” said Jill Graham-Scanlan, president of Friends of the Northumberland Strait.

“There were many gaps in the science and the very little science that they did submit was challenged by the experts that we had retained to review the proposal.

“All along they said that the decision would be based on the science or lack thereof and that appeared to be the basis upon which Minister Miller made her decision.”

James Gunvaldsen Klaassen, an Ecojustice lawyer who has been working on behalf of the Friends group, supported Miller’s decision to gather “critical information” lacking in the company’s submission.

“The potential impact of Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent pipe could be devastating on the marine environment and the local economy, so we are encouraged by Minister Miller’s decision to proceed cautiously and gather all necessary information before a decision is made in 2020,” Gunvaldsen Klaassen said.

“We have finally been heard,” Chief Andrea Paul said in a statement.

“Our community, our fishers, our county, we have been heard,” said Paul, who is head of the Pictou Landing First Nation and its community that sits adjacent to the current Boat Harbour effluent treatment area.

Paul said the number of responses in the assessment application process is a clear indication of how concerned the public is about this project.

“When it comes to their new proposed treatment facility plan, health of our people, environment, health of our fisheries – we hold all of these very close to our hearts.”

Ticking clock

The Environment Department had earlier decided that the submitted project proposal would undergo a Class 1 assessment, limiting the review to 50 days, with a 30-day period for public comment. More than 900 public submissions were received. The department could have applied a Class 2 assessment, which involves an independent panel and can last 275 days, in the first place.

“They made the wrong call in asking for a Class 1 assessment, they should have asked for a higher standard, a higher level of scrutiny years ago,”said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston, the MLA for Pictou East.

“This is ramifications of mistakes that have been made along the way. Meanwhile we have Nova Scotians all across this province in severe stress, in my community and in communities all across this province, in the fishing industry and in the forestry industry. The government has managed to push that stress along further.

“The clock is definitely ticking.”

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said Northern Pulp’s EA submission was inadequate.

“The Department of Environment has said they (company) have failed to provide adequate information about health impacts, about fish habitat, about chemical composition of the effluent,” Burrill said. “What in the world have they provided here? The company plainly has fallen very short.”

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