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EDITORIAL: Can taxpayers trust the province on Northern Pulp file?


The province’s environment minister will eventually have to approve or disapprove the mill’s plan. Given the fact that they’ve done everything they could to conceal this financial arrangement, how can taxpayers trust the province? - File
The province’s environment minister will eventually have to approve or disapprove the mill’s plan. Given the fact that they’ve done everything they could to conceal this financial arrangement, how can taxpayers trust the province? - File

Tuesday’s court decision on Northern Pulp delivered a stinging blow to the province in its attempts to keep its dealings with Northern Pulp a secret. It also revealed troubling aspects of the government’s financial relationship with the mill in Abercrombie Point.

In short, the province has been acting as both investor and regulator as the mill tries to meet a deadline to close its treatment plant.

The decision says the province has been paying Northern Pulp for part of the cost of preparing documents for environmental assessments. The deal allows for reimbursement from the province of up to $8 million for design and engineering of the mill’s new effluent treatment plant.

The plant is needed to replace the existing one, which treats effluent that has been pumped from the mill into nearby Boat Harbour since the mill opened in 1967. The adjacent Pictou Landing First Nation has complained ever since about the pollution and in 2015 extracted a legislative promise from the provincial government that the plant would close by Jan. 31, 2020.

Pictou Landing lawyers argue the province was obligated to disclose to the band its dealings with the mill on the new plan to treat effluent, as part of its duty to consult.

The province disagreed, and appealed a lower court decision in November 2018 that ordered it to do so. On Tuesday, they lost that appeal.

Their 2016 agreement with the mill bolsters the band’s argument that the provincial government is not a disinterested party when it comes to assessing the environmental impact of the new treatment plant.

Covering the costs of the mill’s required environmental assessments makes the provincial government an investor in the plant, essentially, on behalf of taxpayers.

The province’s environment minister will eventually have to approve or disapprove the mill’s plan. Given the fact that they’ve done everything they could to conceal this financial arrangement, how can taxpayers trust the province to assess the new treatment plant’s environmental impact in an unbiased manner?

The three-judge panel answered that question: “Once the province approves under the funding agreements, would there be an about-face that denies approval under the Environment Act? Likely, the contractual approval would facilitate the statutory approvals.”

In other words, the province wouldn’t spend $8 million on the plan only to say no when it comes to granting a permit. The fix is in.

We’re not opposed to the plant’s continued operation, if it can do so without making the kind of mess it’s made so far. Hundreds of jobs are at stake.

But the Liberal government has put itself into an inescapable conflict of interest. Premier Stephen McNeil should explain how his government can properly assess Northern Pulp’s effluent treatment plan while at the same time paying for the costs of its preparation.

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