Nova Scotia

Northern Pulp admits it is likely to miss 2020 effluent deadline

The deadline matters because mill's provincial industrial approval expires Jan. 30, 2020, and a functioning effluent treatment system is required.

'We are at risk of missing the timelines by a few months,' Paper Excellence executive says

Two boats joined a rally in July against a plan by Northern Pulp, shown in the background, to put an effluent pipe into the Northumberland Strait. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

The owners of a pulp and paper mill in Pictou County, N.S., say it's unlikely a new effluent treatment pipeline will be ready in time for the government-imposed deadline of January 2020.

"We are at risk of missing the timelines by a few months," said Jean-Francois Guillot, vice-president of operations at Paper Excellence, which owns Northern Pulp.

"At this point, it's risky," he said. "I don't think so. We can have effluent treatment working by January 2020, it's just the discharge point, we kind of have to do backflips to make that happen." 

The deadline matters because the mill's provincial industrial approval expires Jan. 30, 2020, and a functioning effluent treatment system is required.

"If we don't have an industrial permit, we have to stop the mill," Guillot said. "What do we do at that time? What do we do with the employees? What do we do with the asset itself?

"So, yes, we are asking ourselves those questions. For us, it's not how we walk away — it's how we can make it work."

Jean-Francois Guillot, Paper Excellence's vice-president of operations, says Northern Pulp is likely to miss a January 2020 deadline for a new effluent treatment system, but wants to continue operating in Nova Scotia. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Guillot said the company intends to submit an environmental assessment at the end of January 2019 for a new pipeline outfall in the Northumberland Strait four kilometres outside Caribou.

That document will provide more detail on when the company believes a new system will be operational.

"We want to stay in Nova Scotia," Guillot said. "We are convinced it can be workable."

Mill fate rests on effluent treatment

The treatment and release of an estimated 70-million litres of effluent each day is key to the mill's continued operation. It has prompted protests and blockades from fishermen who object to the discharge of treated effluent anywhere in the Northumberland Strait.

The impasse is the result of legislation passed by the Nova Scotia government to close the 140-hectare treatment lagoons at Boat Harbour by January 2020.

The Indigenous community has complained for decades about the effluent flowing through its land.

The closure date was a personal commitment from Premier Stephen McNeil, who has shown no sign of budging.

Boat Harbour compensation deal reached?

Guillot also said Northern Pulp has reached a "tentative agreement on compensation" with the province over the pending closure of the existing treatment facility at Boat Harbour.

The government leases the facility to the company for waste-water treatment.

When it passed legislation to close the facility, it effectively tore up a lease agreement with the company to keep it running until 2030.

"The province and ourselves came to an agreement about, OK, how it is going to work out," Guillot said. "We talk about compensation. Both sides are OK with it. Most of the issues now are making sure to make that happen. It's not a question of money."

The province has disputed the characterization that there is arrangement in place with Northern Pulp and its parent company.

"Government has been meeting with the company to discuss what could be fair compensation given the early termination of the Boat Harbour lease, however, there is no agreement in place at this time," Marla MacInnis, communications spokesperson, said in an email response to CBC News.

First site abandoned

In December 2017, Northern Pulp announced it would build a treatment plant on its property next to the mill at Abercrombie Point and pipe it about 11 kilometres to a dispersal point outside Pictou Harbour.

But the proposed site was abandoned after surveys revealed ice scouring could destroy the six-nozzle diffuser at the discharge point — not to mention require the burying of significant sections of pipeline along the route.

Mill defends new outfall site

Guillot claims the Caribou location in deeper water offers improved mixing and dispersion.

Much is already known about water conditions, according to the company, because of dredging for the Bay Ferries run between Caribou and Wood Islands, P.E.I.

"The treated effluent, when it goes into the ocean — it's really just dissolving or disappearing," he said.

The company said the Caribou location can meet federal water quality guidelines that require temperature and salinity to return to background levels within 100 metres of the outfall.

It has not yet provided modelling data for the proposed location.

Modelling animation of dispersal at Boat Harbour, based on a 30-day tide cycle in July 2016, shows effluent dispersal largely hugs the coast with fingers of effluent extending into the Northumberland Strait.

Guillot said the company is in discussion with the provincial government about obtaining a right-of-way to use the Pictou Causeway as a pipeline route toward Caribou.

"Nobody has closed the door at this point."

50 years of broken pipes and promises

The company is unlikely to win over local fishermen in the Strait who have boiled down their fight down to No Pipe in the Strait.

Groups representing fishermen say they aren't surprised that Northern Pulp will miss the deadline.

Fishing boats gathered to block survey boats hired by Northern Pulp earlier this month. (Submitted)

"To say that they will only miss the deadline by a few months seems wildly optimistic. It doesn't even reflect the advice of their own consultants," Allan McCarthy of the Northumberland Fishermen's Association said in a news release. 

"It is the position of our working group, representing over 3,000 fishermen from Nova Scotia, Pictou Landing First Nation, P.E.I., and New Brunswick, that Boat Harbour must close on schedule.  All parties in the ... legislature voted in favour of the Boat Harbour Act in 2015. We call on all parties to honour that act now," he said.

"If you think tensions are high now, you don't want to think about what could happen if MLAs do not honour the Boat Harbour Act."

Pictou Landing First Nation won't consider extending the deadline, said Chief Andrea Paul.

"Our community has lived with polluted air and water, broken promises and broken pipes for over 50 years. Boat Harbour is closing on schedule and we expect nothing less. We have also made it clear that we oppose dumping treated pulp effluent anywhere in the Northumberland Strait." 

'Collateral damage'

Guillot said the division between the two sides could have long-term effects.

"The scare tactics, I'm OK with that. It's a free country but people have to realize what is the collateral damage that goes with that," he said.

It was the only explicit reference he made to the economic consequences of a mill closure.

"If people are prepared to live with the conditions of having no mill, there is nothing I can do. That's not the outcome we are looking for."

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.