Nova Scotia

Northern Pulp to mothball mill as it continues with environmental assessment process

Just weeks before the mill is scheduled to shut down, officials with Northern Pulp have informed the Nova Scotia government they plan to continue with the environmental assessment process for a proposed new effluent treatment facility.

Public comment on terms of reference draft open until Feb. 7

While Northern Pulp is scheduled to shut down at the end of this month, the company is still pursuing the environmental assessment process for a proposed new effluent treatment facility. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Just weeks before the mill is scheduled to shut down, officials with Northern Pulp have informed the Nova Scotia government they plan to continue with the environmental assessment process for a proposed new effluent treatment facility.

Environment Minister Gordon Wilson said last month the company's most recent attempt to get approval for the project, which would include treatment on the mill's property in Pictou County and treated effluent sent to the Northumberland Strait via a pipeline, lacked sufficient scientific information. At the time, Wilson said the project would require an environmental assessment report.

Just days later, Premier Stephen McNeil said he would not extend the deadline in the Boat Harbour Act, legislation that says the mill must stop using the former tidal estuary to treat its effluent as of the end of this month.

The decision effectively spelled the end of the mill and officials have begun the shutdown process. The operation is no longer buying pulpwood, a move that's had a drastic effect on the forestry sector and value of woodlots, and layoff notices for the mill's 350 workers are imminent.

Still, according to the 37-page draft terms of reference released by the Environment Department on Wednesday, the company told the government on Jan. 2 it intended to continue with the environmental assessment process, a decision that required the department to release the draft. The public has until Feb. 7 to comment on the document, exactly a week after Boat Harbour is scheduled to stop receiving effluent.

A final terms of reference will be provided to the company in April, at which point it will have two years to complete the environmental assessment report.

Company winterizing mill

In a statement Thursday, the company said it remains committed to the province and wants to operate in Nova Scotia "for the long-term."

"We intend to complete an environmental assessment for our proposed effluent treatment facility and are in the process of reviewing the terms of reference," the statement said.

"Our team is currently focused on supporting our employees, developing plans for a safe and environmentally responsible hibernation, and working with the Government of Nova Scotia and stakeholders to determine next steps."

Mill officials have previously dismissed the idea the mill could be shut down for an extended period without damage to the equipment.

In the first public comments from anyone from government since McNeil's ruling last month, the premier said Thursday it's fine for the company to remain in the province, but if it's going to operate it must be with "the right approval with an environmental assessment and with the right treatment facility and it has to meet all the standards of today."

Premier Stephen McNeil says the province is preparing to clean and disconnect the pipe that runs from the Northern Pulp mill to Boat Harbour. (Robert Short/CBC)

McNeil said it's not uncommon for a mill to be mothballed.

"It's in essence winterizing the facility so that it can be dormant for however long," he told reporters.

The province will not pay for any part of the winterizing process, the company's environmental assessment process or maintaining the plant while it's dormant, said McNeil.

The only thing that could pass through the plant after its shutdown at the end of the month would be something to clean the pipe that runs from the mill to Boat Harbour, for which the province is responsible, said the premier.

"We can't immediately go in and shut that pipe off until we actually deal with what's in it," he said. Once the pipe is cleared and cleaned, it will be disconnected.

Transition team meeting

McNeil said all of these steps are happening in consultation with Pictou Landing First Nation and the cleanup of Boat Harbour would go ahead as scheduled. He expects that work can fully begin in about 18 months, when a federal environmental assessment process is complete.

The mill's plans are a separate issue from the government's focus on transitioning the forestry industry to a reality that doesn't include the mill, said McNeil.

He will join Kelliann Dean, the deputy minister in charge of the province's forestry transition team, when she addresses reporters later Thursday for the first time following the transition team's initial meeting.

This timeline covers major events from the 1960s to 2019. It begins with the construction of the pulp mill at Abercrombie Point to Premier Stephen McNeil's 2019 announcement that the Boat Harbour effluent treatment site would close. 6:29

Some people who work in the forestry industry have expressed concern that the lack of information to this point is an indication the government still isn't sure how to respond to the pending loss of the single largest player in the forestry industry, or how to cope with the economic fallout.

Last month, McNeil announced a $50-million transition fund, which the transition team will determine how to administer to people affected by the shutdown of Northern Pulp.

More recently, the government established phone lines people can call for emotional support (1-866-885-6540) or with questions related to employment (1-888-315-0110). Employment fairs are also scheduled around the province later this month.

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With files from Jean Laroche

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