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Complete transformation' of idled N.S. mill panned by critics

HALIFAX -- The company behind a beleaguered mill in northern Nova Scotia is proposing a "complete transformation" of its operations in an effort to reopen the idled kraft pulp plant, a plan that was quickly rebuked by local leaders and environmental advocates.

Mill owner Paper Excellence said its $350-million transformation plan would slash water use, reduce wastewater components, lower visible plumes from the mill's stacks and remove detectable odours during normal operations.

Yet despite added steps to treat wastewater, the plan to restart the mill continues to involve discharging treated effluent from the Northern Pulp mill into Pictou harbour.

The plant, which opened in the late 1960s, made kraft pulp -- a key ingredient for making toilet paper and other paper products. It was mothballed in January 2020 after the province banned the mill from dumping effluent near a local Mi'kmaq community.

Pictou Mayor Jim Ryan questioned why it took so long for the company to propose cleaning up the mill's environmental footprint.

"As far as I'm concerned, they burned one too many bridges," he said. "There would be very little tolerance for any of the effluent -- treated or untreated -- to go directly into the harbour."

The mayor of the picturesque tourist town, which sits directly across the harbour from the Abercrombie Point mill, added that locals have been "overwhelmingly pleased" with the improved air quality since the plant was shuttered 18 months ago.

The mill has long been a source of tension in Pictou County, with the economic benefit of hundreds of rural forestry jobs pitted against environmental concerns and the impact on Pictou Landing First Nation.

The union representing laid off forestry workers welcomed the proposal to restart the plant, which once employed about 300 people.

"We hope Northern Pulp's plan to transform the mill into one of the world's cleanest will meet Nova Scotia's environmental standards so workers can get back to their good jobs that are vital to the province's forestry sector," Jerry Dias, Unifor national president, said in a statement.

The mayor of Pictou acknowledged that the economic impact of losing the mill is a real concern, but he said the benefit of jobs must be weighed against people's health and the environment.

Graham Kissack, vice-president of environment and health and safety with Paper Excellence, said the company acknowledges community concerns and wants to work to build trust and finalize a transformation plan for a clean and sustainable mill.

"On air emissions, we've heard clearly from people that they were tired of the odour and particulate and other issues from the site and we're correcting that," he said.

The fumes from the Northern Pulp stacks have long been an issue for locals, at times creating smog conditions and an unpleasant sulphur smell.

The mill also contaminated the Boat Harbour tidal estuary near Pictou Landing First Nation, where toxic wastewater was pumped for decades.

"Historically we've let those groups down," Kissack said, referring to local Indigenous Peoples. "We need to do better."

Dale Paterson, Northern Pulp's transformation lead, said the major change with the company's latest proposal is the addition of a third step in the process of cleaning the wastewater.

"The thing that is radically different is the addition of tertiary treatment," he said, noting that the fully treated effluent would be discharged into the harbour. "The exact location will be determined through the environmental marine studies."

Jill Graham-Scanlan, president of Friends of the Northumberland Strait, said the company is making "glittery claims" but providing few hard facts about the amount of effluent that would be discharged into the harbour and its composition.

In June 2020, the mill was granted protection from its creditors under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act, a move aimed at allowing the company to restructure.

Paper Excellence did not release details about how it plans to pay for its $350 million overhaul of the mill.

"It's still early days in terms of where we are in terms of establishing our funding and how we're going to get there," Kissack said. "We have tentative green lights from government leadership around the project but these specifics are still being built out."

Raymond Plourde, senior wilderness co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, said it's too late to salvage the existing mill.

"Rather than trying to patch this ancient pollution factory with pieces of new equipment that should have been added long ago to reduce pollution, the truly appropriate, environmentally responsible proposal would be to build an entirely new smaller mill that consumes half as much wood," he said.

"They also need to eliminate the bleaching, which is what causes so much of the air and water pollution, and build their new mill somewhere other than on Abercrombie Point in the middle of beautiful Pictou harbor so that the surrounding communities can develop tourism and other economic activities that are currently impossible because of the presence of this giant hulking mill."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 15, 2021.


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