Nova Scotia

Ottawa revisits whether Northern Pulp proposal needs federal assessment

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna is asking the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to consider Northern Pulp's proposed effluent treatment plant using the new Impact Assessment Act.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna asks agency to take another look

Officials with the company that owns the Northern Pulp mill expect to complete a government-ordered focus report by the end of the month. (David Gutnick/CBC)

The decision by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to revisit whether Northern Pulp's proposal for a new effluent treatment plant needs a federal review was sparked in part by the efforts of the chief of nearby Pictou Landing First Nation, according to Central Nova MP Sean Fraser.

Chief Andrea Paul testified at a Senate committee hearing earlier this year in support of the new Impact Assessment Act. Among other things, it calls for greater emphasis on the rights of Indigenous communities and more consideration of the cumulative health effects and effects on climate change of a proposed project.

With the new act coming into force at the end of August, Fraser, parliamentary secretary to McKenna, said it is only appropriate that the Pictou County, N.S., mill's proposed project be considered for review by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency using the new law. The Chronicle Herald first reported on McKenna's request.

The environmental assessment process has been handled by the Nova Scotia government to date, despite calls from some members of the public for a federal review of the project.

"It would be an awful pill to swallow if we had to go back to the First Nations community and say, 'That law that you testified in support of won't apply to [this] project,'" Fraser said in a telephone interview.

Central Nova Liberal MP Sean Fraser says it's only right the project be considered in the context of the recently enacted Impact Assessment Act. (CBC)

Right now the proposal is following provincial review requirements. Mill officials have said they expect to submit a government-ordered focus report later this month and then the province would be in a position to make a decision on the project before the end of the year.

Should the province approve the project and construction begin before the federal agency decides whether to do a review, the agency would no longer have the ability to intervene, something Fraser said is reasonable.

"Quite frankly, that would be inappropriate from a business certainty point of view."

But Fraser noted the question of whether or not a federal assessment would happen also becomes moot if Premier Stephen McNeil's government maintains the deadline in the Boat Harbour Act, which calls for the mill's current treatment site to be closed to effluent by Jan. 31, 2020.

Mill officials have said they cannot operate without an extension to the act, and that it would take upwards of two years to build a new treatment site.

"This only matters if the province goes back on its commitment under the Boat Harbour Act," said Fraser.

An issue of mixed jurisdiction

Speaking to reporters following a funding announcement in Bridgewater, N.S., on Wednesday, McNeil said he's not received any information from the federal government about the renewed ask for an agency assessment.

But he noted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and two federal fisheries ministers have previously recognized "this is a provincial jurisdiction."

McNeil said the mill continues to work toward trying to get environmental approval for its project and his government continues to operate with the expectation the evaluation will happen at the provincial level.

Fraser said it's not that simple.

"This project has mixed provincial and federal jurisdiction and anybody that tells you that it's one or the other is not giving a full picture of what's going on," he said.

Even if the agency does not proceed with its own review, Fraser noted there are certain aspects of the project — in particular the pipeline, which would extend into the Northumberland Strait to discharge treated effluent — that would be subject to federal laws and regulatory review requirements and necessitate approval from Ottawa.

"This doesn't fit on a bumper sticker, so it's hard to communicate, but long story short: both the provincial and federal government have a responsibility to make sure that our marine environment is protected and I can tell you with certainty that the federal government would make good on that obligation."

About the Author

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca