Nova Scotia Environment Minister Gordon Wilson says he does not have enough information to properly assess the potential effects to the environment of Northern Pulp's proposed effluent treatment plant, a decision that's got the largest player in the province's forest industry considering its future.
"The most important result at the end of the day is that we have an outcome that protects the environment, that weighs in all of the competing interests that there are out there, and the decision at the end of the day is one that's based on science and best evidence," Wilson told reporters in Halifax on Tuesday.
The minister has ordered the Pictou County pulp mill to complete an environmental assessment report.
Wilson said he's well aware of the potential implications of his decision and how many people it affects, but the minister said his focus can only be on the application itself and whether it has met requirements to address risks to human health and the environment and explain how they would be mitigated.
"It is a decision I think that did weigh on me very heavily, but it is one I feel very confident is the right decision."
Brian Baarda, CEO of Northern Pulp's parent company Paper Excellence, said in a statement it is disappointed with Wilson's decision and is considering its options for the future.
"Our team put forward an in-depth plan based on sound science that showed no meaningful environmental impact, represented a significant operational improvement, and ensured Nova Scotia's forest sector and the thousands it employs could remain a vital part of our economy," he said in the statement.
"Currently, we are reviewing the decision and our options for the future of Northern Pulp."
The province had until Tuesday to decide whether or not to approve Northern Pulp's proposal for a new treatment facility that would pump up to 85 million litres of treated effluent daily via a pipeline into the Northumberland Strait.
The terms of reference for the report will be released by Jan. 10, followed by a 30-day public comment period. From there the mill would have up to two years to submit its environmental assessment report.
That means the matter will run squarely into the terms of the Boat Harbour Act, which calls for the mill to stop sending effluent to its current treatment facility in Boat Harbour by Jan. 31, 2020.
Government officials confirmed Tuesday the mill has filed an application to extend its industrial approval but would not say what that might mean for Boat Harbour on Feb. 1. Wilson would not speculate about what would happen if they company tried to use Boat Harbour to treat effluent after the act's deadline.
The one person who can answer that question, Premier Stephen McNeil, wasn't speaking Tuesday. He's scheduled to address reporters on Wednesday. Baarda called on McNeil to make a decision about extending the act as soon as possible.
McNeil has repeatedly said he has no reason to consider an extension because the company does not have approval for the new effluent treatment project. To make a change would require recalling the Nova Scotia Legislature before the end of January.
Andrea Paul, the chief of nearby Pictou Landing First Nation, is happy the province is asking for more information.
"That's what we've been asking for from the very beginning," she said. "To make sure that the science that they're providing is not going to have any harm on our resources, it's not going to harm our fish, it's not going to harm the air and it's not going to harm the land."
She said she isn't worried the province will backtrack on its promise to shut down at the end of January the facility at Boat Harbour, a former tidal estuary adjacent to the First Nation that has been handling effluent for five decades.
"It's not going to change," she said of the deadline.
Pictou Landing elder Louise Sapier remembers what Boat Harbour was like before it became a dumping ground for effluent in the 1960s.
"That was our playground," she said. Sapier said there was "a lot of good memories back then," and remembers swimming and catching "fish with our bare hands."
Wilson received more than 6,000 pages of comments from the public and government reviewers to consider as part of making his decision.
In a letter to the mill, Wilson wrote there wasn't enough information in the company's focus report about possible impacts on fish and fish habitat or human health, something he said was highlighted in comments from federal and provincial reviewers and from Pictou Landing First Nation.
Wilson also raised concerns about the lack of certainty about raw wastewater characterizations and the limited amount of information the mill provided on that and air emissions. There also wasn't enough information about the effectiveness of a thicker pipe that would be used to move the effluent to the Northumberland Strait or how possible leaks would be detected and addressed.
Further consultation with the Town of Pictou is also required to address their concerns about the pipeline route and the fact it crosses the town's watershed, Wilson told the company.
Unifor national president Jerry Dias, who represents the 350 workers at the mill, said the timing of the minister's ruling "is horrendous."
"What is has done is really put a huge cloud over 2,700 direct workers over the Christmas period," he said.
Dias criticized the premier for "not fighting for jobs" in the forestry sector and said McNeil has to amend the Boat Harbour Act.
Jeff Bishop, the executive director of Forest Nova Scotia, said Wilson's decision means more uncertainty and anxiety for people employed in and connected to the forestry industry. Thousands of people's jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue are tied to the mill's existence, according to a recent economic impact assessment by the union.
Bishop said he believes Northern Pulp has worked as hard as it can to satisfy the government's requirements to get an approval of the project, but the bar keeps moving.
"What the process seems to be doing is as certain information comes in and questions are answered, it begs new questions."
Robin Wilber, the president of Elmsdale Lumber, which employs about 50 people in the forestry industry near Pictou, said he expected the minister to either approve or reject the project, not simply seek more information.
Wilber said mills such as his rely on Northern Pulp for their operations to be viable because it gives them a place to send what's left over after they turn logs into lumber.
Landowners and businesses like his will all suffer without markets for low-grade wood products, said Wilber.
Allan MacCarthy, a spokesperson for the Northumberland Fishermen's Association, welcomed Wilson's decision. For the last two years he and other fishermen have argued there are too many unknowns about how the treated effluent would affect their livelihoods.
"It's going to make everyone feel a lot more secure," he said. "There's a big weight lifted from everyone's minds today."
Ecology Action Centre wilderness co-ordinator Ray Plourde said Wilson made the right call.
"Certainly I and a lot of stakeholders across the province would have liked to have seen this project be rejected, but if I were in the minister's shoes, I probably would have done exactly what the minister did do, which was the follow the terms of his responsibilities without prejudice."
Plourde said it's clear politics didn't influence Wilson's decision and he thinks the mill's application for an updated industrial approval should be rejected.
Opposition politicians said Tuesday's outcome shows the government's approach to the matter has been flawed from the start.
Tory Leader Tim Houston, who is an MLA in Pictou County, said the government should have just required a more involved Class 2 environmental assessment in the beginning. He said he still doesn't see enough information from the mill that would make him support an extension of the Boat Harbour Act.
"This should have been a higher level of scrutiny from the beginning and in fact the federal government should clearly be involved in this in file and the fact that they're not is a huge disappointment to me."
NDP Leader Gary Burrill was blunt in his assessment of the situation.
"I think it is spectacularly incompetent for Northern Pulp to come, now a second time, with a report that the Department of Environment says is inadequate in what it says about water, inadequate in what it says about land, inadequate in what it says about air," he said.
"What else is there besides water, land and air for the Department of the Environment?"
Both Burrill and Houston criticized the premier for not being available to answer questions on Tuesday given how vital the issue is for so many people in Nova Scotia.