Nova Scotia

'Completely overwhelmed': Workers, forestry sector react to Northern Pulp news

Employees are worried about the impact of the Northern Pulp paper mill's closure on individuals and the community.

Employees, contractors worried about effects of paper mill closure on individuals, community

Kimberly MacLaughlin has worked at the Northern Pulp mill for 13 years. She's worried about the impact of the closure on her family and community. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Kimberly MacLaughlin sat in her Honda Civic on Friday morning, watching a live stream of Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil's decision on whether to allow the Northern Pulp mill to continue pumping effluent into the Boat Harbour treatment plant in Pictou County.

As McNeil uttered the words, "Let me be clear: There will be no extension," MacLaughlin said, simply: "Oh my God."

Then the tears started flowing.

"This is unbelievable," she said.

MacLaughlin knew if the mill didn't get an extension to continue operating its current treatment facility, both her job and her husband's would be in jeopardy.

Northern Pulp has repeatedly said if the government didn't allow the facility to operate past the Jan. 31, 2020, deadline, the mill, which employs 350 people and supports more than 2,000 forestry-sector jobs, would close.

The Northern Pulp mill in Abercrombie Point, N.S., is viewed from Pictou, N.S., Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

For MacLaughlin, like so many who rely on the mill for a living, there is a lot at stake.

She has worked at the mill for 13 years and her husband is a forester who cuts wood on contract to sell to the company.

Her son is an apprentice millwright whose potential future employment at the mill is now gone in the blink of an eye.

Her daughter is in her second year at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., and is afraid she won't be able to afford to go back to school next year because her summer jobs were at the mill, her parents' income is too high for her to qualify for student loans and they may not be able to get a bank loan without a steady income.

"I'm just completely overwhelmed with every emotion," MacLaughlin said. "I'm angry, my anxiety is probably huge right now, I'm upset, I want to throw up. It's even too hard to even comprehend what's going to happen now."

Aerators churn up toxic mill waste in what is now a lifeless, dark and foamy Boat Harbour. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

MacLaughlin called McNeil's decision "unfair," saying Northern Pulp did everything it was asked as it tried to get its proposal for a new effluent pipeline and treatment facility through regulatory hurdles.

Earlier this week, the province's environment minister said Northern Pulp's environmental studies were still lacking, and gave the company two years to complete more.

"We wanted to build a first-class — not a dollar store one — we wanted a first-class facility to be built," MacLaughlin said. "And because of a deadline, a date on a piece of paper, they're not allowing them to do it.

"And to put people through this right before Christmas, it's so unfair.… There's not even a word for what [McNeil's] doing to people. You're going to see mass devastation across this whole province."

'Devastates the forest industry'

Northern Pulp buys about 42,000 truckloads worth of wood chips, bark and round wood from sawmills and woodlots all over the province each year.

Friday's announcement came as bad news to Andrew Watters, the general manager of the Groupe Savoie sawmill in Westville.

"It basically devastates the forest industry in the province. Everybody is scrambling. What do we do? What do we do with our staff?" he said. "Everything is uncertain now as to what is going to take place." 

Watters said he shut the sawmill down on Thursday so staff could rally in support of Northern Pulp in front of Province House in Halifax.

Andrew Watters, the general manager of the Groupe Savoie sawmill in Westville, says 'everybody is scrambling' after the announcement. (CBC)

Jeff Bishop, the executive director of Forest Nova Scotia, said the industry, which employs thousands of people, will look drastically different after the smoke stops billowing from the stacks at Northern Pulp.

"The premier has effectively reached over and flicked off the light switch and left a number of folks in the sector in the dark," Bishop said.

"We have heard from mill owners and company owners, contractors, truck drivers … that have said if there's no way forward for Northern Pulp, then they didn't see a way forward for their own."

Jeff Bishop, executive director of Forest Nova Scotia, says he will do what he can to help workers in the forestry sector who will be affected by Northern Pulp's closure. (CBC)

McNeil announced a $50-million fund to help workers in the sector with retraining, education and emergency needs.

But Bishop said it's not easy for people or businesses to switch gears.

"You don't, you know, dismantle your business and simply decide one day that the next you're going to have a whole bunch of new customers and markets to go to. It's not that simple."

Along Highway 118, between Dartmouth and Fall River, hundreds of logging trucks lined up along the road on Thursday to protest the potential closure of Northern Pulp.  (Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

He said the $50-million price tag "quickly looks like a drop in the bucket" compared with the economic impact of the forestry sector.

But Bishop committed to helping his members get through it.

"Anything we can do and I can do personally on behalf of our sector to help move things forward for a forest sector of the future — no matter what form that takes — then I will be there to do that."

'A difficult day,' says mayor

Even those who have supported the closure of the current effluent treatment facility expressed sympathy for workers affected by the closure.

"It's a difficult day for a lot of people in Nova Scotia," said Jim Ryan, the mayor of Pictou. "We certainly feel for those people who are going to be affected financially and their families as well, the people who work at the mill, the people who work in the forestry industry, and the people who supply those industries as well."

As for MacLaughlin, she's worried about the impact of the decision on her family as well as the community, which has already been divided over the mill's environmental and economic impacts.

"It's a division that will never heal now," she said. "This community will be divided for the next 50, 60 years."

About the Author

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca

With files from Jack Julian and Michael Gorman

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