Environmental assessment of Northern Pulp's mill restart plan begins

The clock has started on the environmental assessment process for Northern Pulp's proposal to restart its beleaguered pulp and paper mill in Nova Scotia's Pictou County.


Last week, the company filed a registration document with the Nova Scotia Department of Environment and Climate Change, and on Tuesday the department formally registered the project.

Now begins the process of a Class 2 environmental assessment — the more rigorous of the province's two environmental assessment options.


The first step is for the environment department to set terms of reference to outline what information it needs to properly assess Northern Pulp's proposal.


On Dec. 21, the province will release those terms and public consultation will begin, including direct consultation with the Mi'kmaw community. Once the terms of reference are finalized, the company will have two years to submit a report with the information requested by the province.


As per provincial regulations, Dec. 23 to Jan. 2 count as one day, so comments will be accepted until Jan. 31.


Proposed restart in 2026

The registration document from Northern Pulp provides more details about a plan released earlier this year by its parent-company Paper Excellence.


The plan includes the construction of a new on-site effluent treatment facility and pipeline to release treated waste into the Pictou Harbour estuary, and other upgrades to the facility to reduce water usage, air emissions and greenhouse gases.


The exact site of discharge is still to be determined based on a proposed study of the receiving water.

If the plan is approved by the province, the company expects to start a two-year construction phase in 2024 and reopen the mill by the end of 2026.


Déjà vu

Northern Pulp has been through this process before. The former Liberal government gave notice in 2015 that the mill's effluent treatment facility at Boat Harbour would have to shut down within five years.


Northern Pulp filed a plan to treat waste on-site, and then pump treated effluent through a 15.5-kilometre pipe ending in the Northumberland Strait.


The plan faced significant opposition from environmentalists, the fishing industry, the Town of Pictou and Pictou Landing First Nation.


Two environment ministers under former Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil reviewed the plan and both sent the company away without approval, citing a lack of information on the project's potential environmental impacts.


Those decisions forced the mill to go idle in January 2020, when the Boat Harbour facility closed.


The company withdrew its environmental assessment application for that proposal earlier this year.


The new registration document said apart from the route of the pipeline, the footprint of the former and new proposals are the same, and so "numerous" baseline studies conducted for the previous plan remain relevant.


Still, the terms of reference from the province will likely set the stage for new surveys and studies.

In addition to the study of Pictou Harbour to choose an effluent outfall location, the company also anticipates doing studies on air quality, noise pollution, risks to human and ecological health and archeology.


While the footprint may remain the same, the new proposal includes an additional step to treat the mill's waste.


The previous plan included a two-step treatment with a "biological activated sludge" process. Now, the mill owners propose adding a third step using rotating disc filters to remove more solids and colour from the effluent before its released into the harbour.


The mayor of the Town of Pictou has already voiced opposition to the new plan.


The registration document said plans were developed with community concerns in mind.

"It is anticipated that potential adverse impacts would be limited through the design of the project using [best available technologies], and the implementation of a series of mitigation measures and compensation plans," the document reads.


In the registration document and a news release issued Tuesday, the company highlighted the potential economic benefits of restarting the mill, including an estimated $128 million in annual income for workers, $279 million in annual operating spending, "with most spent in Nova Scotia," and $38 million paid to the government annually in taxes.


Lawsuit threatened

In addition to a potential restart for the mill, another major question that looms over Northern Pulp and the Nova Scotia government is a possible settlement for losses associated with the legislated closure of Boat Harbour.


The company successfully applied for permission from a B.C. court last month to borrow and spend $450,000 to prepare a lawsuit against the province for as much as $450 million in losses. Northern Pulp is in creditor protection and owes more than $300 million to creditors, including $85 million to the government of Nova Scotia.


The company has until January to file a lawsuit.