The Northern Pulp plant at Abercrombie Point, Pictou County. - Aaron Beswick
The Friends of the Northumberland Strait have recruited reinforcements to fight Northern Pulp’s plan to pump millions of litres of treated effluent into the Strait.
“It’s a very interesting issue and a very important issue for that area of Nova Scotia and for the province as a whole,” said lawyer James Gunvaldsen Klaassen of Ecojustice’s recently opened Atlantic office.
“I think it’s time that the environment was protected in that area.”
The area is Pictou County, which has lived under the economic benefits and environmental trials of the Abercombie Point kraft pulp mill for more than a half century.
Northern Pulp’s proposed new effluent treatment system would treat up to 90 million litres of pulp mill waste daily and discharge it into the Northumberland Strait, which supports rich fisheries and spawning grounds of many types of marine life, including lobster, scallops, herring, tuna and Atlantic salmon.
Gunvaldsen Klaassen and fellow Ecojustice lawyer Sarah McDonald will be providing legal support to the Friends group.
“We believe there to be a conflict of interest on the part of the Nova Scotia government in that it is too close to this project and this facility and the financial and legal consequences of a decision that might go against approving it,” Gunvaldsen Klaassen said. “It is too close to the government and creates a conflict and therefore ought to be managed and reviewed by the federal Environment Department and by the (federal) minister.”
The proposed treatment system would be built on mill property and the effluent piped some 10 kilometres along the floor of Pictou harbour for discharge into the Strait. Northern Pulp had initially intended to to register its environmental assessment for the project with the provincial Environment Department by July but later adjusted that goal to this fall.
“Pre-registration project work continues,” company spokeswoman Kathy Cloutier said in an email Thursday. She said the company is taking its time to ensure an all-encompassing environmental assessment registration document is submitted.
The department will execute a Class 1 assessment, usually ascribed to smaller scale projects, that limits the department review to 50 days, with a 30-day period for public comment. The department could have applied a Class II assessment, which involves an independent panel and can last 275 days.
Complicating the issue is a government commitment to close the existing Boat Harbour treatment plant by the end of January 2020, requiring the new treatment facility to be in operation by that deadline.
“That’s less than 500 days away,” said Pictou lawyer Jill Graham-Scanlan, a member of the Friends of the Northumberland Strait group. “There is no plan registered. We are very concerned about those timelines.”
Gunvaldsen Klaassen said the 30-day comment period provides little time to submit a perspective to the minister that won’t be part of the company’s registration materials.
“That will give us 30 days to basically digest all the detailed scientific information that is going to be filed on this environmental assessment by Northern Pulp,” he said. “We will have to have that reviewed by scientists, by ourselves and by our client to determine where the issues are and to provide comments which we hope will be useful to the minister.”
Graham-Scanlan has been digesting information about the project for months but says she is still in the dark, especially since the company announced in July that it would have to reroute the proposed effluent discharge pipe because of a recently discovered shipwreck in the area.
“We’ve been inquiring since July about where the proposed new route is and we’ve not received a reply. We, as the public, have no idea what the new route is going to be. We’re very concerned if that pipe is going to go anywhere in the Northumberland Strait as to what is going to be coming out of that pipe. We are very certain that it will have negative impacts on the Strait and the ecosystem there, on our health, on our livelihoods and well-being,” Graham-Scanlan said.
Graham-Scanlan’s group says the livelihoods of more than 3,000 fishermen from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick are at risk, along with a First Nation commercial and food fishery, a $200-million Northumberland tourism economy, and a $65-million sport fishing industry. Local businesses, property values, and quality of life for local residents will also be affected, the group maintains.
Graham-Scanlan said efforts by her group, a fisheries group and others to get a meeting with Environment Minister Margaret Miller and her predecssor, Iain Rankin, have been ignored.
“They haven’t responded to our requests,” she said.
Ecojustice has five offices across Canada and leans on 30 years of using the law to defend nature, combat climate change, and fight for a healthy environment. Still, Gunvaldsen Klaassen is aware of the the potential for the Environment Department to give its OK to the mill’s application.
“I’d be premature to say what we’d do in that scenario but certainly there is an ability to ask the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia to review a decision after an environmental assessment has taken place,” Gunvaldsen Klaassen said. “The court can look to see if it complies with the statute and if it is a reasonable exercise of the jurisdiction that has been exercised.”