The Nova Scotia government is being accused of making "major concessions" to the Northern Pulp mill when it agreed to ease environmental conditions this week.

On Feb. 8, the province raised a paper production cap by 20,000 tonnes and relaxed water usage restrictions in a deal that ended the mill's legal challenge of its 2015 government industrial approval.

The company — a subsidiary of Paper Excellence — says the original terms were unachievable, but critics see the changes as a clear victory for a notorious polluter.

"The government has failed to even gently pressure this mill to meet standards being met by every other pulp mill in the country. That's all we're asking," said Dave Gunning of the group Clean the Mill.

"The mill wanted an increase in production and they got it. They wanted to use more water and they got it. They wanted to put in more effluent and they got basically everything they were looking for."

Dave Gunning

Dave Gunning, of the group Clean the Mill, says Northern Pulp got everything it wanted when the provincial government agreed to ease environmental conditions. (CBC)

Fight over water

The province had already removed or reduced a number of conditions in July 2015. The company's court challenge centred on a requirement to reduce mill water usage by about 34 per cent, which would automatically put the brakes on production.

It would also reduce polluted effluent discharged — for decades — into the Boat Harbour wastewater lagoons adjacent to the Pictou Landing First Nation. A 310,000-tonne production cap was imposed to ensure the mill could meet stricter standards.

The new industrial approval allows the mill to withdraw an average of 70,000 cubic metres — or 70 million litres — per day from the Middle River watershed by the end of the approval in 2020.

That is an 11 per cent increase over the original approval, which set the limit at 63,000 cubic metres.

The new industrial approval also allows a maximum daily removal of 92,310 cubic meters by 2020.

'Major concessions'

"The provincial government has made some major concessions in favour of Northern Pulp," said Jocelyne Rankin of the Ecology Action Centre.

She cites the removal of any maximum limit for wastewater discharge.

"That initial condition has been completely revoked," she said.

Rankin also objects to another change in the terms, one that allows water consumption to be calculated on a daily average over an entire year.

She says an annualized average will allow big withdrawals in summer months when water levels are lower in the Middle River watershed, threatening fish.

"When the mill shuts down as it does, it can tap into that unextracted water that was not used during the shutdown, perhaps exceeding the daily limit," Rankin said.

However, the Feb. 8 ministerial letter to Northern Pulp detailing the changes refutes that interpretation. The letter notes "shutdown" days cannot be used in the mill's averaging calculation.

Critics' claims challenged

On Wednesday, the province released a hydrological study it commissioned from consulting firm RV Anderson and used it to justify its decision to increase the mill's water consumption limit.

The December 2015 report concludes the "sustainable" daily intake from the Middle River watershed is 95,040 cubic metres a day, above the maximums allowed in the industrial approval.

The province says the water consumption limits are still below those contained in the mill's last approval in 2011.

Northern Pulp says water usage reductions are reasonable and achievable.

"This is a $10-million industrial approval. That is the capital that is required to meet the terms and conditions," Mill spokesperson Kathy Cloutier told CBC News.

"It's not an easy thing to meet these standards but we are committed to meeting them."

Both the province and the company downplay the significance of the removal of effluent limits.

"You regulate effluent through water usage. It's covered in the reduction of water usage," Cloutier said.

Pictou Landing band silent

CBC News contacted the Pictou Landing First Nation for a response to the changes made by the province to the Northern Pulp industrial approval. The band did not provide a response.

It is currently in discussions with the province over the promised 2020 shutdown and remediation of the Boat Harbour wastewater treatment lagoons.

Additional measures  

The new industrial approval contains other requirements for Northern Pulp that do address effluent:

  • Submit a list of proposed capital water reduction projects one year prior to proposed implementation of the projects. Following a review by the department, detailed engineering plans for a project may be required from the company.
  • Retain the services of a qualified third-party professional engineer to determine the impacts of water reduction projects on the quality of the effluent entering and being discharged from the effluent treatment system.
  • Conduct an assessment of total reduced sulphur levels in wastewater which compares to current emissions to performance objectives by June 15, and submit an annual report of wastewater total reduced sulphur loading results to the department by June 30 each year.

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