Top News

JIM VIBERT: Northern Pulp question won’t be ‘speculative’ much longer


Northern Pulp’s owner has been vague about whether the corresponding mill closure will be permanent if it doesn’t get an extension to the Boat Harbour Act to allow it to continue operations while it builds (if granted environmental approval) a highly controversial new facility that would dump treated effluent into the Northumberland Strait. - Christian Laforce / File
We’ll know on or before Dec. 13 whether Northern Pulp's effluent treatment plan meets Nova Scotia’s environmental standards, but the smart money says the mill will get the necessary approval to proceed, says columnist Jim Vibert. - Christian Laforce / File

Within a few short weeks, the question won’t be “speculative” anymore, and Nova Scotia’s Liberal government will have to fish or cut wood. 

Northern Pulp’s new effluent treatment plan – replacing Boat Harbour which, by law, is scheduled to shut down at the end of January – is winding its way through the provincial environmental assessment process.  

We’ll know on or before Dec. 13 whether the mill’s plan meets the province’s environmental standards, but the smart money says the mill will get the necessary approval to proceed. 

Indeed, the province’s highest court – the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal – can’t imagine that the government, which helped finance Northern Pulp’s proposal and is under contractual obligation to treat the mill’s effluent, would withhold the environmental approval. The court made that observation while ruling on the related issue of the province’s duty to consult with the Pictou Landing Mi’kmaq community on the Northern Pulp proposal. Pictou Landing abuts Boat Harbour. 

The Chronicle Herald’s Aaron Beswick recently put the question that thousands of Nova Scotians want answered to Premier Stephen McNeil’s office. Essentially that question is: Will the government extend the life of Boat Harbour if – when? – Northern Pulp’s new effluent treatment plan gains environmental approval?  

The extension would be required to keep the Abercrombie, Pictou County kraft pulp mill operating while the new treatment facilities are constructed, estimated to take about 18 months.  The mill needs some method of dealing with its effluent or it will have to shutdown, perhaps for good. Boat Harbour has been receiving the effluent since Scott Paper opened the mill in the late 1960s. 

Northern Pulp’s plan is to treat the mill’s effluent on site and then pipe the wastewater into the Northumberland Strait.   

That plan doesn’t sit well with North Shore fisherfolk – sorry, but “fishermen” doesn’t meet the current gender neutrality test, and a “fisher” is a weasel-like critter.  The people who fish fear that the plan jeopardizes the multi-million-dollar Strait lobster fishery. 

The province’s highly-integrated forestry sector says the mill’s closure would wreak havoc across their entire industry, costing hundreds of jobs and risking the viability of sawmills which depend on the mill as a market for their wood chips. 

The provincial government is on the horns of a dilemma.  

On one hand, the mill’s closure would cause serious economic harm to the province’s forestry sector, which is vital in much of rural Nova Scotia.   

On the other, extending the life of Boat Harbour so the mill can remain in operation would be a betrayal of the Pictou Landing First Nation, which has been suffering the adverse consequences of the heavily polluted lagoon for more than a half-century. 

Extending Boat Harbour’s life also means that, about 18 months later, the treated effluent would start pouring into the Strait against the vehement opposition of the North Shore lobster industry. 

And, the people of Pictou County are divided between those who want the mill to survive as an important part of the region’s economy, and those who, after 50 years, have had enough of its pollution and want to see it close. 

If Environment Minister Gordon Wilson delivers the expected approval for Northern Pulp’s new treatment facilities, the provincial government faces the toughest test of its six-year life. 

For much of the province’s history, the decision would be a foregone conclusion. Governments of all stripes have invariably come down on the side of jobs and economic growth. In this case, on balance, the economic argument favours keeping the mill alive, even if it means an extension of Boat Harbour. 

But it’s no longer that simple. Environmental considerations, for many Nova Scotians, have become at least as important as economics. If the environment comes first, Boat Harbour will close on schedule and the future of the mill will be very much in doubt. 

It’s not even clear which is the better political decision here. If the mill closes, voters in rural ridings across the province will be alienated from the Liberals for letting it happen. 

If the government does what’s necessary to save the mill, it will pay a political price among Nova Scotians who want environmental considerations to win the day. And if saving the mill means extending Boat Harbour, as it almost certainly does, breaking faith with the Pictou Landing community is another serious political problem. 

The government’s reluctance to answer the critical questions about the mill’s future is understandable, but the time is rapidly approaching when those questions will no longer be avoidable.  

RELATED:

Recent Stories