As Boat Harbour closure looms, premier hopeful about Northern Pulp's fate
Effleunt treatment lagoons must close by Jan. 31, 2020, but company doesn't have approval to build replacement
Premier Stephen McNeil says he has "a responsibility to look at all possibilities" if the company that operates the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou County, N.S., can present an environmentally sustainable plan for a new treatment facility.
Legislation passed by McNeil's government in 2015 says the effluent treatment lagoons the mill uses in Boat Harbour must be closed by Jan. 31, 2020, but the company still doesn't have approval to begin construction on a replacement site.
In March, then-environment minister Margaret Miller said she didn't have enough information from the company about the project, which would also include a pipe to the Northumberland Strait, to allow it to proceed. Northern Pulp was ordered to produce a focus report to address shortcomings Miller identified, work the company has up to a year to complete.
But McNeil said that year, as well as the company's own projection that it would be at least the summer of 2021 before it could have a new treatment site in place are "the extremes." He said it would be up to the company to provide a proposal showing it can meet the province's environmental requirements and create "a path forward."
"It took them a while to get at it, but they are really working hard now to present something to the regulator and at that point we can assess what our path is," McNeil said.
"If [Northern Pulp] can provide something that makes sense, that they can present to the community, that they can present to government that gets a permit, then I believe I have a responsibility to look at all possibilities as the premier."
McNeil noted that while mill officials continue to go through the provincial process, there is also a federal environmental assessment of the province's Boat Harbour cleanup project happening and that will "continue to push that cleanup out quite a ways."
Federal officials announced earlier this year they would review the project and it's expected that process could take up to a year. The current estimates from the provincial government put the start of the cleanup project at sometime in 2021.
Kathy Cloutier, spokesperson for mill owner Paper Excellence Canada, said the company has been "working diligently" since getting the terms of reference for the focus report and the goal is to complete the necessary work as soon as possible.
"We are committed to this project," she said, noting the annual 10-day maintenance shutdown at the mill was recently completed at a cost of $10 million.
Cloutier said marine geotechnical work that started in April is now complete and being analyzed. Officials are meeting with stakeholders and determining the best way to share information as it becomes available, she said.
While people who work at the mill and in the forestry industry have lobbied the government for an extension on the Boat Harbour Act, fishermen, tourism operators, members of Pictou Landing First Nation and environmentalists have opposed the idea.
Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul said she has no concerns McNeil might be looking to amend the legislated closure date.
"I've never gotten that feeling," she said.
"He hasn't expressed that to myself or to the community that there may be a possibility of a change in the date. I still feel confident with the Jan. 31, 2020 date."
Mill officials have said without an extension to the closure date, the operation would be forced to shut down, a move that would send major waves through a forestry industry that relies heavily on its existence.
McNeil said he understands why people who work in the woods and other parts of the industry are nervous.
"This is not being lost of me," he said. "It's not just those in the woods in terms of how much fibre to cut, it's about investment in capital. All of that with an uncertain future in front of them."
That's why the government is focused on diversifying markets, he said, pointing to recently-announced pilot projects to use wood to heat six public buildings. Regardless of what happens with the mill, McNeil said the government would keep looking for new markets for the industry.
A spokesperson for the Labour Department said officials there don't begin planning workforce transitional supports until and unless they receive a notice from an employer that 10 or more employees will be terminated. The premier said he remains hopeful it won't come to that.
"I believe this operation can coexist environmentally in this province with an active fishery and with a sustainable forestry," said McNeil.
"I want to continue to see my neighbours, who work in the woods, to have access to that, but it has to be done in an environmentally-sustainable way and that's why I encourage all sides to continue to work hard."