A 2008 “No Pipe” rally of Mi’kmaw chiefs and other opponents of Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent treatment system. Photo: Joan Baxter
A 2008 “No Pipe” rally of Mi’kmaw chiefs and other opponents of Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent treatment system. Photo: Joan Baxter

It didn’t take Northern Pulp long to start issuing thinly veiled threats.

Just before noon Tuesday, Nova Scotia Environment Minister Gordon Wilson announced that the company that owns the Pictou County pulp mill would have to submit a full environmental assessment report for its new effluent treatment facility. That process that could take two years, during which the mill would have no place for its effluent. January 31, 2020 is the legislated date for the close of its current treatment facility at Boat Harbour.

Shortly after the minister’s announcement, Brian Baarda, CEO of Northern Pulp’s parent company Paper Excellence, put out a statement that sounded part defensive teenager caught out for turning in some sloppy homework, and part schoolyard bully. It read:

To date, we have been following the federally and provincially agreed process to obtain the necessary approvals to construct our proposed wastewater treatment facility and ensure the long-term sustainability of thousands of jobs in Nova Scotia’s forestry sector. Our team put forward an in-depth plan based on sound science that showed no meaningful environmental impact, represented a significant operational improvement … 

Then the plaintive tone gave way to a threatening one, with ominous hints about what will happen if the government doesn’t amend the Boat Harbour Act while its new facility undergoes the extended environmental assessment process:

Currently, we are reviewing the decision and our options for the future of Northern Pulp. 

An Environmental Assessment and the continued operations of Northern Pulp require an extension to the Boat Harbour Act. 

Representatives from Paper Excellence and Northern Pulp will have no further comment until the Government of Nova Scotia decision on the extension of Boat Harbour is known. 

Citizen guide to NS EAs Full EA Report Figure 5.

Minister Wilson refused to answer questions from journalists about Boat Harbour, and say whether Northern Pulp would be allowed to continue to send its effluent to the lagoon after the legislated date for its closure has passed.

He said Boat Harbour was not related to the environmental assessment process for the mill’s new effluent treatment facility.

Nor would Wilson say whether Northern Pulp had asked to continue using Boat Harbour in the application for a new Industrial Approval that the company submitted to Nova Scotia Environment on December 5, 2019, an application the environment minister said was “incomplete.”

Response from Pictou Landing First Nation

Northern Pulp may have been “disappointed” by the government decision to require an environmental assessment report, and others were upset by the minister’s refusal to provide clarity on Boat Harbour and the fate of the mill without a place to treat its effluent, but for the people of Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN) the decision is being welcomed as good news.

PLFN have steadfastly opposed the mill proposal to pipe up to 85 million litres of warm treated pulp effluent into the Northumberland Strait off Caribou Harbour, where many of their members fish.

Sarah Clark of the Pictou Landing First Nation stands in front of a Boat Harbour closure clock. Photo: Joan Baxter

Since January 31 this year, they have been counting down the days to the closure of Boat Harbour, which before the mill opened in 1967 was a treasured tidal estuary that was so important to them that they called it “A’se’K” or the “other room.”

Chief Andrea Paul & billboard to Premier Stephen McNeil and MLAs. Photo: Joan Baxter

In a Facebook chat, Chief Andrea Paul told me:

I am pleased with the decision. The Minister just didn’t have enough information to accept or reject. Glad he didn’t accept with conditions and satisfied that he is asking for a full EA [Environmental Assessment report]. Basically [this is] what we wanted from the federal department. And we are sticking to the January 31, 2020 date.

I asked Chief Paul if she was confident that the government will honour the Boat Harbour Act. She answered simply, “Yes.”

While he says there is no way of knowing if the government might consider extending Northern Pulp’s use of Boat Harbour for its effluent, PLFN legal counsel Brian Hebert told me that the decision today “renewed his faith in the system.”

In Hebert’s view, Northern Pulp has let down its employees and people in the forest industry because it had nearly six years to come up with an alternative to Boat Harbour for its effluent, and still hasn’t come up with an acceptable project.

According to Hebert, Northern Pulp knew back in June 2014 when its pipeline broke and spewed 40 million litres of toxic effluent onto sacred Mi’kmaq burial grounds that the time was coming when they would have to stop using Boat Harbour.

After that break, PLFN blockaded the effluent pipe. They didn’t remove it and let the mill begin operating again until they had an agreement in principle with the government that a date would be set for the closure of Boat Harbour, to be followed by its remediation.

PLFN originally asked that Boat Harbour be closed in 2018, but eventually — and reluctantly — agreed to the 2020 date, to give the mill time to come up with a new treatment facility plan, have it approved and get it constructed.

That agreement in principle led to the 2015 Boat Harbour Act, legislation passed by the Liberal government of Stephen McNeil with support from the other two parties.

Hebert also says he was surprised to learn from the minister’s announcement today that Northern Pulp has already submitted an application for a new Industrial Approval, which it would need to continue its operation after its current Industrial Approval expires on January 30, 2020.

“It is the duty of the province to consult with PLFN once they have the application,” Herbert told me. Even if the Industrial Approval application that the government received was incomplete, as Minister Wilson said it was, Hebert is still surprised that PLFN has not been informed or consulted about it.

Once the province has received an Industrial Approval application it deems complete, Hebert says it must consult with PLFN.

It is certain that PLFN would not agree to an Industrial Approval that granted Northern Pulp permission to keep using Boat Harbour.

Hebert told me that PLFN met recently with provincial government officials as part of the general consultation process on Boat Harbour, and those officials said they “were not aware of any initiative to change the Boat Harbour Act.”

That leads him to believe the closure date won’t change.

But if it did, Hebert says, “The reaction from PLFN would be swift and certain,” and he’s not sure “it would be legal avenues,” although he says there are probably legal avenues it could take too. Hebert adds:

The province is aware of this, and doesn’t want to go down that road. Northern Pulp has put itself in this position, and tried to make Pictou Landing First Nation the scapegoat. But even the most ardent supporters of the mill don’t want PLFN to suffer more. 

Michelle Francis-Denny. Photo: Joan Baxter

Michelle Francis-Denny, Community Liaison for the Boat Harbour Remediation project, which is currently undergoing a federal environmental assessment and a Class II provincial one, was equally positive. I asked Francis-Denny what she thought of the government’s decision and whether it might lead the government to extend the mill’s use of Boat Harbour for its effluent. This is her reply:

Forty-four days. In 44 days our healing is expected to begin. The legislated closure date of the effluent treatment facility is January 31, 2020 and that day will be for ceremony as our reclamation of A’se’k will begin. 

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Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website: www.joanbaxter.ca; Twitter @joan_baxter

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  1. Such heartening news and so well compiled. MORE thanks, Joan.
    P.S. Should the date beneath first picture be 2018?