Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is passing the buck with his muted response to requests for a federal environmental assessment of the proposed Northern Pulp waste pipe.
He was in Pictou Country last week to announce that the federal government will contribute $90 million to twin a stretch of TransCanada highway between Sutherlands River and Antigonish.
But the elephant in the room for Pictou County First Nations, fishers, tourism operators and environmentalists was the plan to pump about 70 million litres of treated effluent via a 4.5-kilometre-long pipe into the Northumberland Strait.
When asked about a possible federal assessment, Trudeau said Ottawa would respect provincial jurisdictions. This is hardly the level of enthusiasm you’d expect from a prime minister who has trumpeted his commitment to the environment, sustainable oceans and First Nations.
His tone was also a little different from Catherine McKenna’s — one week earlier, his environment minister had said the feds are watching the issue closely and would not rule out a federal assessment.
But Trudeau is now signalling that he’d be happy to let the province of Nova Scotia duke it out with those who do not want the effluent going into the Strait.
In this most recent chapter of the Pictou County pulp and paper mill saga, the battle is focused on the type of environmental assessment that will be conducted. The province chose to fast-track the process with a 50-day Class 1 environmental assessment, opting not to conduct a more thorough assessment, which would take 275 days.
Opponents of the pipe, who rallied in Pictou on July 6, want a full federal assessment which would be more detailed and give another regulatory point of view.
Their belief is that the province of Nova Scotia has been compromised by its long history with the mill, its ownership of the present Boat Harbour treatment facility and indemnity agreements it has signed with the mill’s owner, Paper Excellence.
These vested interests have muddied the credibility of the province’s role as regulator.
Trudeau’s response is not a final yay or nay on the matter, but his lack of enthusiasm for a federal assessment on this file seems curious and out of sync with his stated values.
Why the resistance? This project involves the health of ocean waters, which are under federal jurisdiction. And a more thorough review should be welcomed by all sides in this case — after all, a lucrative fishing resource is at stake, not just a land-based forestry industry.
Premier Stephen McNeil is balancing the environmental concerns with the interests of 300 full-time jobs at the mill, and more than a thousand suppliers of wood to the mill. He is also under time pressure. Legislation passed by the province requires the existing treatment facility at Boat Harbour to close in January of 2020.
The decision on a federal assessment will have to wait until the mill comes up with an alternate plan after the discovery of problems with the original pipeline route. When it is finally made, it will speak volumes about the prime minister’s true commitment to the environment.