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The Nova Scotia government has been adamant all along that “the science” will determine whether it approves Northern Pulp’s plan to treat the mill’s chemical brew on-site and then pour the wastewater into the Northumberland Strait.
Well, unless the science is alchemy, astrology or perhaps political, the Pictou County pulp mill’s plan won’t pass muster.
And on or before Dec. 17, Nova Scotia’s Environment Minister Gordon Wilson will say so or sacrifice his, and the provincial government’s credibility, on the age-old altar of economics over the environment.
As difficult as it will be for the province’s forestry sector — sawmill and woods operators say it will be devastating — the 50-plus-year-old kraft pulp mill is at the end of the line. It’s time for the province to turn its full attention to salvaging the rest of the forestry sector — the sustainable and environmentally responsible industry.
Wilson could approve Northern Pulp’s plan with conditions, but independent analysis of the science behind the plan — including from several federal government departments — found so many gaps, gaffes and omissions that such an approval would have to come with more conditions than a horde of hypochondriacs could imagine.
And, should the mill’s flawed plan somehow gain provincial approval, the government’s problems are only beginning, because there’s still the Boat Harbour question to deal with.
The various owners of the Abercrombie Point mill have, in partnership with Nova Scotian governments of three political stripes, poured the mill’s effluent into Boat Harbour since Scott Paper opened the place in the late 1960s.
To its credit, Stephen McNeil’s government passed a law in 2015 that established a firm deadline — the end of January 2020 — to stop the flow of the mill’s pollutants into the tidal estuary turned putrid lagoon that sits on the doorstep of the Pictou Landing First Nation community.
Northern Pulp has said it would take at least a year to construct the treatment facilities that are currently awaiting a verdict from Wilson. To remain in operation, the mill needs some method of dealing with its effluent during the construction period, and an extension to the Boat Harbour deadline is the only idea that’s been floated.
Such an extension is almost unimaginable, given McNeil’s solemn word to the Pictou Landing Mi’kmaq that, come January, a half-century of environmental racism typified by Boat Harbour will end and, at a price tag approaching a quarter of a billion dollars, the estuary will be cleaned up.
Watching all of this warily from Ottawa is Canada’s new Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who’s given himself until Dec. 20 to decide whether Northern Pulp’s treatment proposal should be subjected to a federal environmental impact study.
The date Wilkinson chose may be pure coincidence, but coming, as it does, just three days after the Dec. 17 deadline for a decision from the province, it seems likely he hopes Wilson settles the matter and relieves the feds of having to make a call one way or the other.
Northern Pulp’s proposal involves treating its effluent onsite, burning the resulting sludge and piping the liquid waste some 15 kilometres cross-country and out into the Strait.
The Town of Pictou is concerned about a potential leak from that pipe fouling its water supply. Air quality is another concern, should the mill be permitted to burn the sludge left behind after treatment.
The government’s protestations that the decision will be based in science alone notwithstanding, you can safely bet that the politics in this have come up more than once wherever Nova Scotia’s governing Liberals gather to ponder such matters.
While the Northumberland Strait fishing industry would disagree, the economics of the equation seem to favour the province taking whatever action is necessary to keep Northern Pulp in operation. The forestry sector across mainland Nova Scotia says its future depends on the mill.
For almost all of living memory, that alone would determine the province’s decision and Nova Scotians could confidently predict approval of Northern Pulp’s plan, along with some kind of deal to extend the life of Boat Harbour until the new treatment facilities are in place.
But times have changed and so has the political calculus.
The political price of putting economics ahead of the environment in this case seems more than the government can afford to pay.