Left to right: Ben Jessome, Liberal candidate; Stephen McNeil, Liberal leader; Lena Diab, Liberal candidate. Location: Chocolate Lake, Halifax. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Yesterday, Stephen McNeil made four campaign promises that he said are aimed at “preserving and enhancing the environment.” Critics say they are aimed at preserving the status quo.

A re-elected Liberal government would continue the ban on onshore fracking. It would introduce a Coastal Protection Act after public consultation on issues concerning the fishery and offshore drilling. It would appoint a Council on Biodiversity and introduce a Biodiversity Act to better protect forests, lakes, and wildlife as recommended six years ago in the 2011 Natural Resources Strategy Report (The Path We Share).

And, for the fourth promise, the Liberal leader announced a review of forestry practices by “an independent expert” before taking action to reduce clearcutting. According to the National Forestry Database using figures supplied by the province, in 2015 clearcutting was estimated at 89 per cent on the combined total of Crown and privately-owned land.

“It’s good to see them acknowledge there is a problem with forestry practices,” commented Raymond Plourde, wilderness coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre. “But we’ve already had a massive, exhaustive independent public review of forestry practices. In fact, we’ve had two or three in recent years: The Natural Resources Strategy, the Western Crown Land Planning Process, and the Panuke Lake Harvest review. They all said essentially the same things: harvesting practices are poor and unacceptable and must be changed by improving regulations. We don’t need another review. We just need a government with the backbone to implement the policies already developed through a highly-credible public policy process and already promised to the public.”

Journalists asked McNeil why another review was being undertaken and how long that would take. He ducked.

“That work shouldn’t take any more than a short period of time,” said McNeil. “We will know by September. I’m hearing from private woodlot owners who are having challenges getting their fibre to market at the same time I’m hearing from a cross-section of Nova Scotians talking about the amount of harvesting on Crown land and we want to make sure the appropriate balance is being struck. Where I live some people feel that balance has not been struck — that’s why we are going outside for independent advice, away from our department [i.e., Natural Resources] and away from industry and away from community.”

Meanwhile, as a result of a significant policy change last August, forestry operations continue to roll along without targets to reduce clearcutting, without clear definitions of whole-tree harvesting, and with no commitment by the Department of Natural Resources to establish a total allowable harvest, as previously recommended in the 2011 Strategy.

To the McNeil Liberals’ credit, they are promising action on biodiversity and they have reduced the amount of biomass burned at Point Tupper.

Marieke Walsh of Global News asked why the Liberals are promising new environmental legislation when it has failed to enforce the existing Environment Act to make the operators of RDM Recycling pay for contaminating at least eight residential wells in the Halifax neighbourhood of Harrietsfield. McNeil said one of the problems was that the penalties had been too low to warrant a prosecution.

“The fines in that Act were minimal,” said McNeil. “We have changed the Act to make sure the fines reflect today and now they have teeth in them. The Department of the Environment has been diligently making sure when there is a complaint the Environment Act has been followed. I’m proud of the work we have done in Boat Harbour [the site of an effluent treatment facility for Northern Pulp beside the Pictou Landing First Nation] and we’ve made a commitment to clean up.”

Fines for companies convicted of environmental pollution now run to $1 million a day and beyond, at the court’s discretion. In March, the operators of RDM Recycling lost their final appeal of charges laid under the Environment Act, but the McNeil government did not act to impose fines related to those charges.

Yesterday, the premier did not respond to a question at the tail end of the scrum about whether a Liberal government would commit to “cleaning up” the contamination leaching from the construction salvage yard that has affected some wells in Harrietsfield. At a rally in that community Sunday, the PC and NDP candidates for Halifax Atlantic promised to do so, if their parties form the next government.

Health services

Elsewhere, PC leader Jamie Baillie announced a campaign promise to put $39.7 million over four years into improving mental health services. The Conservative plan would establish four Mental Health Crisis Response Centres around the province to divert people who end up seeking help in overcrowded Emergency Rooms.

Some of that money would also go to hire more trained counsellors and provide increased mental health services in schools, with the goal of providing all adolescents with access to in-school mental health services.

Last week the Liberal party promised $34 million to tackle long wait times for people suffering with mental health problems, including hiring 100 new clinicians and support staff to work in schools and Collaborative Care clinics.

In New Waterford, NDP leader Gary Burrill promised that an NDP government would pay for expanded dental care coverage for children aged 17 and under.  The estimated cost is $2 million a year. The  last NDP government under Darrell Dexter raised coverage for children up until the age of 14 and planned to phase in extensions but the party was defeated by the McNeil Liberals in  2013.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. There is no more need for another forestry review. Unfortunately, the recommendations of previous reviews have been ignored or eviscerated by subsequent government decisions. Having yet another review is simply avoiding the issue, postponing this thorny matter after the election, rather than enforcing the recommendations already established by careful recent reviews. These reviews show that excessive reliance upon clear cutting, the result of DNR’s landscape ecology planning system, has devastated our forested landscape. Most of the soils in Nova Scotia cannot rapidly regenerate forests, particularly after clear cutting has increased the leaching of crucial buffers. Clear cutting promotes even aged forests and does not favour our native mixed species, multi aged Acadian forest.

  2. McNeil used to run a small appliance repair business. He seems inclined to generally support the interests of business over others, including the environment.

    The people of Waverley Fall River Beaverbank, who have loudly opposed a quarry threatened in their neighborhood for many years, watched as their (Liberal) MLA articulated their views before the McNeil government, but was ignored and it went ahead anyway. There were even claims that the Premier improperly intervened to ensure it did. It would appear he favors jobs over the environment by default.

    The matter was apparently mishandled, and the petitioning company has begun the application process again. Under a new McNeil government I have little doubt that the outcome will be the same, no matter what the locals want.