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Pictou Lodge loses booking after GM criticizes Northern Pulp mill over environmental concerns

The Pictou Lodge has been penalized for not toeing Northern Pulp’s party line, says the resort’s general manager.

“I stood up in front of a large crowd and I spoke to the poor record that our local pulp mill has when it comes to environmental standards and their record of non-compliance,” Wes Surrett said of his comments at a Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia summit in Halifax in late November.

“It didn’t take any time and my phone was ringing with a representative from the mill, that it had heard that I had made disparaging remarks about the mill in public and that was not OK with them,” Surrett said.

“He demanded a letter of apology or else they’d be cancelling their Christmas party with us. I just said, ‘Well, I guess you’re cancelling your Christmas party. I’m not offering an apology for calling you out on your poor record.’ I knew when I opened my mouth that when you speak out against things there could be repercussions. But I’m quite willing to live with those.”

The phone call was later attributed to Bruce Chapman, manager of the kraft pulp mill at Abercrombie Point. The party for the mill’s more than 300 employees and their families had been scheduled for Saturday.

“The decision to relocate the Christmas party was made, and agreed upon by both parties, after two conversations were held between the company and a representative of the original venue,” said Kathy Cloutier, communications director at the mill.

Surrett, chairman of the tourism association, said he was fired up by keynote summit speaker Frank Wolf, a wildlife adventurer and environmentalist who spoke about short-term industry jobs.

“I feel bad for the employees of the mill because they’ve had their Christmas party here for years and it’s a wonderful event,” Surrett said. “It’s a quality event. . . . I’m sure that they will book somewhere else and it will be wonderful.”

The cancelled party is a byproduct of renewed Pictou County division swirling around the mill and its plan to construct a new wastewater treatment facility with a pipe extending into the Northumberland Strait to daily discharge tens of millions of litres of treated mill effluent. Area fishermen and tourism operators oppose the discharge into the Strait, and residents and businesses have long bemoaned the smell and toxicity of the mill’s stack emissions.

“It’s neighbour against neighbour, that’s the tough part about it,” Surrett said of the division. “This file has been mishandled by the Department of Environment for so long. It always gets to this point, where it starts pitting industry against industry or neighbour against neighbour to bring attention to it for the right thing to be done. Ultimately it has to lie with the Department of Environment to set better standards and to enforce those standards.”

Cloutier said the company is definitely not trying to sow discord. “We do not wish to see any division within the community, or province for that matter, and will continue to provide project information throughout the pre-registration phase of the project,” Cloutier said.

To that end, the company held a meeting this week with area fishermen and two public open houses to explain the treatment plant that is to replace the controversial Boat Harbour facility by 2020. A nearly one-metre-diameter pipe will carry the treated effluent from the treatment facility to be built on mill property to the outfall area in the Strait, where it would be discharged in different spots by a six-port diffuser.

“We are working hard to understand concerns and environmental impact so the design will be effective in meeting them,” Cloutier said. “Our focus is a solution that is environmentally and economically sustainable.”

She said the project will include a $70-million in-mill oxygen delignification system, “which will actually reduce even further some of the qualities of the effluent.”

Surrett said the lodge sits near the point where the Strait and Pictou harbour merge.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this but there is no way that we were going to issue a written apology on their poor track record,” Surrett said. “They are still blowing over on their air emissions and the big conversation now is that they need to put a new wastewater treatment plant in and the proposal is to take that effluent by pipe and dump it out into the Northumberland Strait which is not even a mile from my beach here. I sell warm, swimmable water, pristine beaches and fresh local seafood, and all of that is at risk with this new proposed pipe. There is just no way we are ever going to get behind that.”

Surrett said the stand he has taken has not gone unnoticed.

“I’ve been really touched by the outreach from the community. I had a lot of people contact me and say thank you for not selling out your morals for the sake of business. . . . I knew that when you speak publicly about big industry, there could be repercussions. I attended their open houses, I play hockey with a lot of these guys, I deal with a lot of them and a lot of them are customers of ours on a regular basis. You keep that but at the same time we are not going to be bullied into blind support.”

Surrett said a typical lodge Christmas party goes for about $50 a head and Northern Pulp parties are usually attended by more than 200 people. And there are room rentals.

“It was considerable,” he said of the lost revenue. “It is the food and beverage industry so the markups are a little bit smaller.”

Surrett said the cancellation didn’t provide the lodge enough time to rebook for Saturday but the Northumberland Fishermen’s Association helped fill the breach, booking the lodge for Dec. 17.

“We asked for a space to help give him the business back that he had lost,” said Michelle Davey, executive director of the fishermen’s association.

“The fishermen don’t usually host a Christmas party but they were very keen on doing that this year. We also wanted to support (author) Joan Baxter at the same time.”

In her recent book, The Mill: 50 Years of Pulp and Protest, Baxter chronicled the pulp plant’s 51-year history of providing much-needed Pictou County jobs while evoking constant criticism from residents and tourism operators. She had scheduled a book signing at Coles Books in the Highland Square Mall in New Glasgow last Saturday but it was cancelled after mill management forwarded a form letter of protest to its employees and retirees that could be sent along to the bookstore and its Toronto corporate headquarters.

The lodge will host a Baxter book-signing session on Dec. 17 in an open house that will also feature singer/songwriter Dave Gunning, a member of the Clean Up the Pictou County Mill group. The fishermen’s association will then have its Christmas party later in the evening.

“We hated to see someone lose business about having an opinion about the pulp mill,” said Davey, who works at the McCulloch House Museum. Davey also said she is torn apart by the divisiveness that pervades the county and the town of Pictou where she has lived for nearly 20 years.

“There are fishermen who fish while their wives work at Northern Pulp. I tell people that we agree to disagree but that we carry on with every other conversation. This one is a sensitive topic. We have to respect each others’ feelings and opinions.”

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