Nova Scotia

Premier's delay on Boat Harbour decision draws opposition ire

It will be two more days before the public gets to hear whether Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil plans to allow Northern Pulp to continue using Boat Harbour to treat effluent beyond the end of January.

Houston and Burrill lambaste McNeil's silence and effect it has on those awaiting news

The public will not hear Premier Stephen McNeil's plan for Boat Harbour until Friday. (Robert Short/CBC)

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil won't speak publicly about the future of Boat Harbour and Northern Pulp until Friday, a move that's drawing heaps of scorn from opposition leaders who say the delay is unfair to thousands of workers in the forestry industry.

On Tuesday, Environment Minister Gordon Wilson said the company's environmental focus report lacked enough science-based information for him to make a decision on the Pictou County-based mill's proposal to build a new effluent treatment plant, which would replace the current facility at Boat Harbour.

Wilson ordered an environmental assessment report, a process that could take at least two years.

Mill officials responded by saying they would take time to consider the future of the operation and called on McNeil to make a decision as soon as possible about whether he would extend the legislated closure date of Boat Harbour.

The Boat Harbour Act requires it to stop receiving effluent by the end of January and an amendment to the act would be required to change that date.

Time to reflect

McNeil, who throughout the process has said without a viable project he has no reason to consider amending legislation, was silent on the question Tuesday. On Wednesday, he issued a statement saying he needed more time before announcing what he'll do, and would address reporters on the Friday before Christmas.

"Because this is one of the most difficult decisions our government has had to make to date, we need to take more time to reflect," he said in a statement.

"At the same time, I understand how difficult this is for many Nova Scotians for many different reasons and I will make a decision public on Friday."

McNeil is also expected to address the issue of what would become of Northern Pulp's loans of $85.5 million from the province should the mill stop operating. Although Business Minister Geoff MacLellan previously said the government would release that information after Wilson's decision, those plans have since changed.

The silence is extending across all of government. Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines refused to tell reporters what he thought should happen with Boat Harbour when he was asked about the matter during a news conference Wednesday.

Northern Pulp officials have said the mill cannot keep operating without an extension, something forestry officials have predicted would result in about 2,700 jobs lost within the industry.

On the other hand, members of Pictou Landing First Nation, which is located next to Boat Harbour and has suffered through decades of pollution as a result, have urged the premier to keep his promise and uphold the closure date in the act.

Still feeling confident

Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul said she was surprised McNeil didn't announce a decision Wednesday, but she continues to believe he will keep the promise he's repeatedly made to her community.

"He made promises before he was elected that his legacy would be to do right by Pictou Landing First Nation and to end this environmental racism," Paul told reporters Wednesday in Dartmouth.

"This was a promise he made before he was elected, it was a promise he made once he got elected and it was a promise he made when we had the pipe break, and it was through that conversation that we were able to reach an agreement to end the protest and move ahead in a good way."

A person doesn't say they want to base their legacy on something and then not follow through, said Paul.

'Folks need to know'

Forest Nova Scotia executive director Jeff Bishop said the delay only serves to drive up the anxiety people in the forestry sector are feeling about what might happen.

"The time of year just adds to it," he said in an interview.

Bishop said people he's talked to since Wilson released his decision are disappointed things weren't more definitive.

"Folks need to know what their business is going to be able to do, what their employees — if they're a business owner — can do," he said.

"Those employees are thinking about what their future also means in connection with this, whether they work directly for Northern Pulp or in the woods or at one of the sawmills that's a partner."

'Totally unfair'

Opposition leaders lambasted McNeil's silence.

"It's completely unimaginable that they weren't prepared for every possible outcome," Tory Leader Tim Houston, who represents a Pictou County district, told reporters Wednesday.

Houston said people in his district are worried sick about what the future holds and the premier is doing them no favours. He said McNeil should have been ready to respond as soon as Wilson delivered his own decision Tuesday.

"The fact that he wasn't there was bad enough, but to now take two more days — two more sleepless nights for thousands and thousands of Nova ​​Scotians — totally unfair."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said he can't imagine why the premier would need anymore time.

Burrill told reporters he's concerned McNeil's need for more time could signal plans to break his word on the Boat Harbour Act, as well as how unprepared the government seemed for this potential result.

"What a scandal," he said. "I think it is profoundly inconsiderate of those whose lives are on the hook about this question."

Neither Houston or Burrill are willing to support an extension to the Boat Harbour Act's deadline.

Thursday events

As the countdown toward McNeil's decision unfolds, there are events scheduled by both the forestry industry and Pictou Landing First Nation for Thursday.

The union for mill workers and industry reps are planning to hold a rally outside Province House at 11 a.m., although no politicians are expected to be there at the time.

Meanwhile, Paul says her community will hold a rally of its own at the same time in the Pictou Landing gym.

With files from Paul Withers

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