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EDITORIAL: Northern Pulp pipe plan lacks public trust

Concerned residents, fishermen and Indigenous groups protest Northern Pulp’s plan to dump millions of litres of effluent daily into the Northumberland Strait on Friday. (ANDREW VAUGHAN / CP)

The news last week that Northern Pulp has to find another location for its new effluent pipe raises questions about whether the mill can make the 2020 deadline for closing its Boat Harbour treatment facility.

Engineers working on plans for the pipe into the Northumberland Strait have discovered problems with the planned route for the pipe.

A shipwreck, a collapsed pier and indications that the bottom has been scoured by ice have forced a search for a deeper site.

The mill says this change will mean an environmental assessment of the project, which was due this month, will be delayed until the fall.

And that means construction costs will rise, as in order to meet that 2020 deadline, more of the work will have to be done in the winter.

This throws new light on a classic jobs vs. environment conundrum, as opponents of the effluent treatment plan face a mill that employs hundreds in an area of rural Nova Scotia that needs those jobs.

Fishermen in the area are rightly concerned that the effluent from the pipe will damage fishing grounds. Environmentalists are incensed by the mill’s poor record on controlling all emissions, even though Northern Pulp has improved the particulate matter coming from its smokestack.

And the people of Pictou Landing First Nation have put up with enough damage to Boat Harbour, the lagoon that takes the wastewater now.

Watching developments nervously are the 300 or so who work at the plant and the hundreds more who work in the woods supplying woodfibre for the mill’s operations. The mill’s owners, Paper Excellence, have said if the effluent pipe can’t be built, the mill will have to close.

Sitting in the middle is the provincial government, which has vowed to close the Boat Harbour treatment facility and clean up the lagoon, but which cannot relish the thought of the mill closing and putting hundreds out of work.

Even more pressure was brought to bear by Friday’s protests, which saw hundreds of fishermen join environmentalists and First Nations in decrying plans for the pipe. The file also has a new minister after Thursday’s provincial cabinet shuffle, though Margaret Miller served as environment minister as recently as a year ago.

Paper Excellence insists that its plan to treat the effluent before it is pumped into the Strait is safe. A spokeswoman told the Canadian Press on Friday that about 20 per cent of North American pulp mills use a system like the one they’re proposing. The remaining 80 per cent use a system more like the one Northern Pulp is replacing.

But neither the mill nor the provincial government has demonstrated to a skeptical public that the project won’t harm fisheries in the Strait. Some will never be convinced.

But there’s a long history of environment damage surrounding the plant in Abercrombie Point and more must be done to gain the trust of the rest of us. The province’s environmental assessment can’t come soon enough.

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