Officials with the company that owns the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou County have told their employees they expect to complete the requirements of a focus report ordered by the province by September.
That would create a scenario that could see the government revisit the date to close Boat Harbour, the treatment site for the mill's effluent.
Company officials, including Paper Excellence Canada CEO Brian Baarda, met with union leadership Wednesday in Halifax and with mill employees in Pictou County on Thursday.
Don MacKenzie, president of Unifor Local 440, which represents the 240 unionized workers at the mill, said the message was the focus report work is expected to be completed soon.
"The projection looks like September," he said.
The company was ordered to complete the focus report when then-environment minister Margaret Miller ruled in March that its application for a new treatment facility, which would include a pipeline running from the mill at Abercombie Point to the Northumberland Strait, lacked sufficient information.
The company had a year to complete the work. Once the report is submitted there is a 30-day public consultation period and then Environment Department staff have 25 days to make a recommendation to the minister.
If the timeline shared with workers holds true, and the department ultimately recommends the minister approve the project, it means the company could have its permit in November or December.
All of this work has been necessary because McNeil's government passed the Boat Harbour Act in 2015, which said the former tidal estuary that has been used as an effluent treatment lagoon for decades is to be closed on Jan. 31, 2020, at which point cleanup of the site could begin.
Looking at all possibilities
As time ticked toward that deadline, McNeil repeatedly said the date was firm and he expected the company to meet it — even after it became clear there was no way for that to be achieved.
This week, however, McNeil added a slight deviation to that line. He said that if the company is able to secure a permit for construction of a new treatment facility, he would have "a responsibility to look at all possibilities."
The most likely possibility would be to amend the Boat Harbour Act, something that could happen during the fall sitting of the legislature, although government has yet to signal plans to do so.
The move would likely set off angry reaction from fishermen, environmentalists and members of Pictou Landing First Nation.
Chief Andrea Paul said during an interview this week that McNeil has given her no indication he's considering changing the date. She noted there is no interest within her community in seeing the date change.
She's not the only one unwilling to entertain an extension for the act.
Allan MacCarthy with the Northumberland Fishermen's Union said he and his colleagues remain adamantly opposed to a pipe of any kind going into the strait.
"We're not changing our mind on the pipe going in the Northumberland Strait," he said.
MacCarthy questioned the political wisdom of amending the act and predicted negative headlines for the government.
"To break that act now, I don't see that being an election winner for them, for anybody," he said.
Baarda has said that without amending the act, the mill would close and the company has also said that without a pipe a new treatment site is not possible.
Everyone wants Boat Harbour closed
McNeil said during an interview this week that while he knows there are people who would like to see the mill shut down, "that's not my view."
"I believe this operation can coexist environmentally in this province with an active fishery and with a sustainable forestry," he said.
MacKenzie said he thinks the premier's most recent comments are a reflection of "how in tune they are with the file and with the complexities that have continued to pop up."
He said the feelings among workers at the mill right now are mixed as they wait to see what happens, although people were encouraged that during a recent maintenance shutdown it was more than basic work performed.
"The conclusion was they spent close to $10 million and that built the comfort level of the people I represent."
MacKenzie said everyone wants Boat Harbour to be closed and cleaned up, but he thinks the deadline in the act was "arbitrarily picked" and didn't take into consideration just how much work would be required.
A company spokesperson said it would take "a year plus" for construction and commissioning of a new treatment facility.