Two Nova Scotia pulp and paper mills are applying for a special power rate to provide relief from a whopping 16.6 per cent rate hike proposed for next year.

NewPage Port Hawkesbury Ltd. and Bowater Abitibi in Brooklyn, Queens County, argue that they need lower, stable power rates to stay in business.

But if they get relief, other Nova Scotia Power Inc. customers will have to pay more. A lawyer for the two mills has applied to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board asking for a special rate on the grounds that they face the prospect of closure due to "economic distress."

That distress relates to a Nova Scotia Power forecast showing rates rising in each of the next four years,

Robin Anthony, spokeswoman with Bowater, said the mill needs competitive rates.

"Electricity is a major component of our manufacturing cost structure, and we need both competitive rates and assurance of long-term stability of rates to sustain our business," she said Thursday.

In the past, the UARB ruled it could not force Nova Scotia Power to offer a special rate for low-income customers.

Now its being asked to approve a special rate for the power company's two biggest customers — both of which employ hundreds of Nova Scotians and whose parent companies are still struggling financially.

Consumer advocate John Merrick said other ratepayers will have to pay more if the mills get the break they're requesting.

"It means they are given a much lower rate from what their fair share should be and the rest of us have to pick up their share," Merrick said. "But, at the same time, what position do you take when that may determine whether a significant community employer stays in business or doesn't?"

The UARB will hear the application in September as part of an application by Nova Scotia Power to raise rates an average of 7.3 per cent to 9.2 per cent for residential customers.