There’s a new get-tough message from the provincial government for the polluting Northern Pulp mill in Pictou County.
Complaints about the stinking smog generated by the mill have been growing, with the Lung Association receiving an influx of calls from people worried about the health effects.
Speaking to CBC’s Information Morning radio program, Health and Wellness Minister Leo Glavine said the mill must clean up or face closure.
"We want to see an improvement in the short term but this mill will not operate in the long term unless, like all other Canadian mills, it is cleaned up dramatically and people know that the air they breathe in Pictou County is as clean as it can be," he said.
Glavine says he didn't realize how bad it is in Pictou until he spent a night there with other health officials last month.
"I was, you know, astonished at the amount of plume that would rest over the Pictou area,” he said.
That message is a change from that of Environment Minister Randy Delorey who said last month the province has no intention of shutting the mill down.
"Well, you know, that really is a difficult question to answer in terms of what is considered imminent health risks," he told Information Morning on Tuesday.
"You know, living in an industrial area over a lifetime, can certainly have some negative impacts on health. However, when we look at a statistical profile of residents of Pictou County, they do not have … diseases and so forth above the average Nova Scotian," he said.
However, that’s contrary to a 2008 health status profile put together by the Pictou County Health Authority which states:
"Mortality rates due to respiratory disease are higher in the Pictou County Health Authority than in the rest of the province of Nova Scotia."
'We cannot sacrifice health and the environment'
Data from the Lung Association of Nova Scotia back up those numbers but Louis Brill, the association’s president and CEO, is quick to remind people those statistics cannot be directly attributed to the mill.
Regardless, Glavine said the mill needs to be cleaned up in order to operate in Nova Scotia in the long term.
"We cannot sacrifice health and the environment to these jobs. Paper Excellence may operate one way in Indonesia, it will not operate in Canada and Pictou County in the future unless there is a dramatic improvement. The next industrial permit will be impacted by the Department of Health, by my ministry, in terms of what is acceptable, both in the short term but in the long term. This mill, in order to operate in our province, must be in full compliance with the standards of today," he said.
That same afternoon Glavine wouldn't commit to the option of shutting down the mill, but he does say it's time for Northern Pulp to take more responsibility.
It's the direction people with the Pictou County group Clean The Mill have been waiting to hear, however, they’d prefer to see action immediately.
"It begs the answer, why do we wait a week? I mean it's either clean it up or shut it down,” said group member Dr. John Krawczyk.
“We have results that show they've been exceeding, way exceeding the government standards and the reason government standards are there is to protect the people's heath."
David MacKenzie, a spokesman for Northern Pulp, said in July the smell and particulate are caused by emissions that are getting through an old precipitator, which is a filtration device. He said the company is having logistical issues bringing in a new one.
They hope to have a new precipitator installed by May 2015.
New testing on Aug. 18
The province will take its next readings of particulates in the air near the mill on Monday.
MacKenzie said if the mill were to shut down in the interim, it would likely not reopen.
"We would lose our employees, our raw materials suppliers in the forests, in the sawmills. We'd lose our customers," said MacKenzie in a July interview.
Glavine said he doubts Northern Pulp would pull out of Pictou County if it was required to update its infrastructure to meet modern guidelines.
"I personally don't buy that argument for the very fact that here you have a 46-year-old plant that had its highest levels of production during the past month. I think this mill, with investment on the environmental side and investment inside the plant, can be viable. But like other mills across Canada, it must become a clean mill," said Galvine.
He said Premier Stephen McNeil plans to have that conversation with the mill's owners after the Aug. 18 tests come back.
"I was there. I had a walk-jog in that air and it is, indeed, unacceptable," said Glavine.
The province has given the mill $111 million in loans since 2009