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Province says it needs more details to make decision on Northern Pulp effluent plan

Caribou Island fisherman Allan MacCarthy said he was pleased with the minister's decision. (Allison Devereaux/CBC)

The Nova Scotia government says it doesn't have enough information about the potential environmental impact of a new effluent treatment facility for the Northern Pulp mill to allow the project to proceed at this time.

"I did not make this decision lightly," Environment Minister Margaret Miller told a news conference Friday.

"It was very clear that, in the end, there only was one decision to make."

The province will give the company terms of reference for a focus report by April 24, and the company will have up to a year to respond.

The decision means the company cannot yet begin work on the project, which is intended to replace the Boat Harbour treatment facility.

19 items need more detail: province

The government has asked the company for more information on 19 items before a decision can be made on whether the controversial project can proceed. Among other things, the government wants more information on:

  • Characteristics of the wastewater after treatment.

  • A realignment of the portion of the pipeline that would travel along Highway 106.

  • A receiving water study for Caribou Harbour, where the pipeline would end.

  • How pipeline leaks would be detected and addressed.

  • Effects on fish and fish habitat, including lobster.

  • Potential contaminants in the air and air quality monitoring efforts.

  • Potential risks to the town of Pictou's water supply.

  • Effects on human health in terms of consumption of seafood.

The government's chief engineer, Peter Hackett, said Northern Pulp was made aware the Transportation Department did not want the pipeline along Highway 106 before the company made its submission to the province.

Hackett said with controlled-access highways, the department tries to keep utilities out of the right of way so potential maintenance does not interfere with the movement of traffic.

"It's not just the shoulder of the road, it's the entire right of way," said Hackett.

He said the preference is for such equipment to be run along secondary roads.

Mill calls for extension of Boat Harbour Act

Brian Baarda, CEO of mill owner Paper Excellence Canada, said the company is disappointed. At the very least, the mill thought it had met the province's requirements to get approval with conditions to do more fisheries studies, he said.

He told reporters it feels like the government's requirements have been changing throughout the process — a suggestion Premier Stephen McNeil denied Friday.

Baarda also disputed the suggestion the company was told ahead of time about concerns related to the pipeline location.

"I was not aware of that," he said.

Baarda renewed the company's call to extend the legislated closure date of Boat Harbour beyond Jan. 31, 2020.

He said the company will comply with everything the government wants, but time is necessary to do the work while preserving jobs at the mill and within the forestry industry.

Before Friday's decision, Baarda said the company thought it would take until the summer of 2020 to complete work on the project.

"This now is going to push it at least another year in my opinion," he said. "Not what we were looking for."

In a news release, Baarda said the mill would shut down without an extension.

"We don't want to walk away," he told reporters. "We're committed to this province, we're committed to not only the province but the employees we have and also the people that are supported by this industry."

Premier tells company to focus

McNeil said the company has been provided with a path to meet the requirements of an environmental assessment and "we'll wait for them to do the work."

He said the government is working with industry to diversify and making contingency plans should the mill shut down.

The government passed the Boat Harbour Act in 2015, triggering a five-year countdown to the closure of the mill's treatment site. McNeil has repeatedly rejected calls to extend that deadline.

While the premier has regularly stressed "the date is the date" when discussing the act, on Friday he was less emphatic.

"At this point, there's no reason for me to even consider [changing the date]," McNeil told reporters.

"The company needs to focus on whether or not it can actually meet the environmental standards of the province. At this point they haven't."

'It's too risky'

Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul said she was pleased with the environment minister's announcement.

"I felt like she took the time and she heard and listened to the concerns of not just Pictou Landing First Nation, but the greater general public," Paul said in a telephone interview.

There is zero interest within the community to entertain revisiting the date to close Boat Harbour and Paul said she recently rejected overtures from Paper Excellence to discuss the matter.

"We've worked way too hard to get to where we are right now," said Paul. "We're 307 days away from this closure date. It would be ridiculous to start negotiating some type of date [when] really there's no definitive date to a timeline they need. It's too risky."

A community divided

The subject has been a lightning rod in Pictou County, pitting mill workers and thousands of people who work in the woods or are connected to the forestry industry against fishermen, environmentalists and the people of Pictou Landing.

The most controversial aspect of the proposal is the 15.5-kilometre pipe, which would transport treated effluent from the mill site and empty into the Northumberland Strait.

The company has noted treated effluent already goes into the Strait without issue, while opponents argue too little is known about what would come from the new pipe.

The environment minister said she read all of the more than 900 submissions from the public on the project and was struck by how many spoke to the lack of information in Northern Pulp's proposal. Miller said she believes all the province's requests of the company are achievable.

"We expect when industry comes to Nova Scotia and they want to do business in Nova Scotia, that they're going to abide by the regulation of Nova Scotia Environment. It's what Nova Scotians expect of me as environment minister," said Miller.

Opposition leaders weigh in

Both opposition leaders said Friday's decision could increase tensions in a community already bitterly divided on the issue. It's something they say could have been avoided if the government had ensured Northern Pulp's application was tabled sooner.

"If we would have had a timeline from the very beginning, we wouldn't be here," said Tory Leader Tim Houston, who represents a Pictou County district, as do two of his caucus colleagues.

He said it feels as though "the ball is being dragged" by the government.

Houston said based on what he's seen so far, he would not support a call to extend the closure date of Boat Harbour as a treatment site.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said Northern Pulp has "come up short again."

"The Department of Environment has said they have failed to provide adequate information about human health impacts, about fish habitat, about chemical composition of the effluent," he said.

"Well what is this about, if it's not about fish habitat, human health impacts and the chemical composition of the effluent? So what in the world have they provided here?"

Other reaction to the news ranged from dismay to relief.

In an emailed statement, Kent Dykeman, president of Forest Nova Scotia, pledged his group's support for the mill in its efforts to complete the focus report. He said the industry relies on Northern Pulp's continued operation, and Forest Nova Scotia is in favour of extending the closure deadline for Boat Harbour.

The union that represents workers at the mill also expressed disappointment in the decision, saying it puts thousands of jobs at risk.

"This will be devastating for our members and their families, but also for so many other Nova Scotia families who depend on the forest sector for employment and this doesn't need to be the outcome," said Lana Payne, Unifor's Atlantic regional director.

The union's statement said national president Jerry Dias and local representatives will meet next week with McNeil and Houston to discuss the matter.

Jill Graham-Scanlan, president of Friends of the Northumberland Strait, said the outcome was what her group expected and hoped for.

"My initial reaction was relief," she said in an interview. "We were very pleased that the minister saw what we saw in that proposal and that she recognized there was a lack of science presented by Northern Pulp in their proposal."

Allan MacCarthy, a fisherman in Caribou Island and member of the Northumberland Fishermen's Association, said he felt the decision vindicated the concerns people in the community have been expressing.

He said fishermen would be very happy with the decision.

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