They call their association the “Les Flamants Roses du Trébon” or LFRT (Flamingos of Trébon), and it’s a collective of residents in southern France who are fighting to have the six-decades-old Fibre Excellence Tarascon pulp mill in the province of Alpes-Côte d’Azur clean up its environmental act.
French media report that the mill is owned by Paper Excellence Canada.
In an email to the Halifax Examiner, spokesperson and assistant secretary for the Flamants Roses du Trébon, Michel Dufy, said he was reaching out to find other citizens’ groups in Canada or elsewhere in the world that have found themselves, like the residents in the south of France, battling to have a Paper Excellence mill stop its pollution, which they say “seriously harms health.”
As the Halifax Examiner reported here, Paper Excellence Canada is part of the complex, convoluted, and colossal corporate empire that includes Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and Sinar Mas, all of which ultimately belongs the multi-billionaire Widjaja family of Indonesia.
Northern Pulp, which owns the pulp mill in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, is also “a Paper Excellence company,” a minuscule cog in the multi-billion-dollar wheel of the Widjaja family’s corporate behemoth.
According to the email, the residents of Tarascon and the surrounding area are fed up with noxious pollution from the mill, and are fighting against what LFRT calls “one of the biggest polluters on the planet, namely the APP / Sinar Mas group to which Paper Excellence belongs.”
“Indeed, we are determined to fight this scourge to the end, and the French state is not helping us, always because of the sacrosanct ‘blackmailing for jobs’,” says the LFRT spokesperson.
In January this year, Fibre Excellence Tarascon found itself in court because of its noxious emissions. The French State Attorney General found the company guilty of “proven and chronic pollution” in breach of the law, and asked for a minimum fine of 50,000 Euros (Cdn $76,500).
The final decision on the pollution case will be made on March 31, 2021.
According to the LFRT spokesperson, an inspector from the Regional Directorate for Environment, Planning and Housing (DREAL) testified in court that the director of the mill had lied about the pollution that was caused by “obsolete equipment.” He says that at times the emissions of fine particulate matter were 14 times higher than Fibre Excellence reported to the regulator.
Pollution caused by “obsolete equipment” in a pulp mill is not unfamiliar to Nova Scotians who remember the rupturing of Northern Pulp’s aging and poorly maintained effluent pipe in 2014, which spewed 40 million litres of untreated effluent over sacred Mi’kmaw burial grounds, or the suffocating air pollution when the mill was operating and breaking production records without functioning scrubbers.
Sisters in pollution
The Fibre Excellence Tarascon mill that found itself in a French court on January 6 on charges of “emitting polluting substances” such as heavy metals and nitrous oxide gas, shares a parent with the Northern Pulp mill that knew a thing or two about emitting polluting substances and upsetting citizens who had to live with the stench of polluted air and water.
It was this parallel between the two Paper Excellence mills — one in Nova Scotia and the one in Tarascon, France — which the FLRT association learned about in a January 7, 2021 article in the Halifax Examiner, that prompted them to send their email.
That January article documented some Paper Excellence corporate history:
Paper Excellence acquired the Northern Pulp mill in 2011 during a shopping spree in Canada that saw it acquire five pulp mills in three provinces — Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia.
That was four years after the Indonesian pulp and paper giant Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), part of the Sinar Mas corporate empire of the billionaire Widjaja family, set up the holding company, Paper Excellence B.V. in the tax haven of The Netherlands (which the Tax Justice Network has identified as a top corporate tax haven). Paper Excellence B.V. then established a complex web of offshoots — including Paper Excellence Canada — to acquire pulp mills in Canada, France and Germany.
In 2019, Paper Excellence Canada finalized the acquisition of three more mills from Catalyst Paper in BC, at Crofton, Port Alberni, and Powell River, just a few years after Paper Excellence had finished shifting more than $150 million in debt from its western Canadian mills to Northern Pulp.
Like its sister mill in Tarascon in southern France, the Northern Pulp mill caused many health concerns over its decades of operation. It polluted the air for many miles around, and sent its toxic effluent — tens of millions of litres of it every day — to Boat Harbour, the formerly healthy tidal estuary that was so valuable to the people of Pictou Landing First Nation that they called it “A’se’K” or “the other room.” 1
The Tarascon mill is considered so dangerous that it is referred to locally as “Seveso,” after the 1976 industrial accident at a chemical plant in northern Italy. In 2010, Time ranked Seveso eighth on a list of the ten worst human-caused environmental disasters.
Shared game plan?
But the two pulp mills have more in common than just their pollution and parentage.
As the Halifax Examiner reported in January, they also seem to share a game plan, which goes something like this: pollute, declare bankruptcy / seek creditor protection, and seek public bailout money.
After Northern Pulp failed to get a pass for its proposed new effluent treatment facility from the provincial government in 2019, and failed to convince then-Premier Stephen McNeil to extend its use of Boat Harbour until such time as it could come up with an acceptable proposal, it put the mill into hibernation and then declared insolvency and sought creditor protection in the British Columbia Supreme Court.
As the Examiner reported here, court documents show that after Northern Pulp made $59.9 million in loans to its corporate owner Paper Excellence, it asked the province of Nova Scotia for $50 million in loans while it did some restructuring, in addition to the $85 million it still owes Nova Scotians. The government declined to provide the new loans, but did agree to freeze payments on the outstanding loans.
Now let’s have a look at what Paper Excellence — mother to Fibre Excellence Tarascon — has been up to in France.
In December 2020, in an interview with Le Bois International, the president of Fibre Excellence Tarascon SAS and vice president of the Paper Excellence Group, Canadian Jean-Francois Guillot, said that the Paper Excellence Group is Canadian and it owns “several pulp and paper mills around the world.” Guillot said that in France, Fibre Excellence SAS owns two pulp mills, the one at Tarascon south of Avignon in the southern French Department of Bouches-du-Rhône, and a second one at Saint-Gaudens near Toulouse in the Department of Haute-Garonne.
The LFRT spokesperson says that the concerned residents fighting the pollution from the Tarascon mill have linked up with the Nature Comminges Association that has fought for years against the second Fibre Excellence mill at Saint-Guadens.
In the email, the LFRT spokesperson says the problems with Fibre Excellence go much further than just pollution. He is also concerned about the company’s strong influence on government and even the media.
He alleges that in September last year “the company, with the help of the media and government representatives, provoked a strike among mill workers by threatening a 5% reduction in their salaries.”
After this, Fibre Excellence did something that may be familiar to Nova Scotians who have been following the Northern Pulp saga. Fibre Excellence Tarascon said it was struggling with financial difficulties and declared it was insolvent, the same term Northern Pulp and its affiliates used when they sought creditor protection in the British Columbia Supreme Court.
The Tarascon mill was then placed into receivership, while the company said it was looking for a buyer.
On October 8, 2020, the commercial court in Toulouse said the pulp mill could continue to operate, but under observation, for six months, until a decision would be made on February 23, 2021.
During that period, Fibre Excellence Tarascon president Guillot said that the company would benefit from a 7 million Euros (Cdn $10.6 million) loan from the French government’s “Fund for Economic and Social Development.”
No one appeared to be leaping to buy or save the Fibre Excellence Tarascon mill until, the last moment, suddenly Paper Excellence itself did a sudden about-face.
On February 19, four days before a decision was to be taken by the court on the judicial redress and receivership of the mill, a media report said that Paper Excellence Canada had come out of the woodwork to “save” the Tarascon pulp mill with 20 million Euros (Cdn $30.4 million).
The injection of funds could allow Fibre Excellence Tarascon to come out of receivership, but — no surprise — Paper Excellence set five conditions for its proposed investment to save its own mill. These included cutting 30 jobs, getting more government financing for its electricity production, a reduction in taxes on its effluent flowing into the Rhône River, and a two-year moratorium on any new environmental regulations.
If it looks like corporate blackmail …
The Flamants Roses du Trébon spokesperson reports that on February 24, the court in Toulouse postponed the decision on the mill’s legal redress and creditor protection status, meaning Fibre Excellence will operate another month under observation.
Corporate welfare for Paper Excellence
According to the LFRT email, there are historical facts that need to be widely known.
First, even though Fibre Excellence Tarascon failed to pay – between 2010 and 2018 – the 18 million Euros (Cdn $27.5 million) it owed the French government for its discharges into the Rhône, French President Emmanuel Macron offered the company a discount on that of about 8.3 million Euros (Cdn $12.6 million) in August 2018 exchange for “bringing their industrial equipment up to standard,” something that has never been verified.
Fibre Excellence also benefited from a government grant of 16.3 million Euros (Cdn $25 million) for a project that the LFRT spokesperson says is to “produce green electricity from the black liquor boiler that has polluted us for more than 50 years.”
There was also that additional government loan of 7 million Euros (Cdn $10.6 million) in November 2020, the LFRT spokesperson says, and then yet another one of 1.6 million Euros (Cdn $2.4 million) to protect jobs in the forestry industry.
“In total, nearly 35 million Euros (Cdn $53 million) that French taxpayers have and will be paying to be polluted!” he writes.
The LFRT association’s consternation over the corporate welfare to the polluting pulp mill in Tarascon echoes sentiments that were widespread in Nova Scotia when citizens watched as millions of public dollars flowed into the coffers of Northern Pulp and its corporate owners.
Recall that in 2010, a year before Paper Excellence acquired Northern Pulp, the NDP government of Darrell Dexter loaned $75 million to the company for the purchase of 475,000 acres of Nova Scotia woodland, and as part of the deal, the province immediately bought back 55,000 acres, at 1.7 times the price per acre that Northern Pulp paid for it. This meant that in addition to the loan that didn’t need to be paid back until 2040, the generous people of Nova Scotia also offered Northern Pulp a hidden gift of $7 million.
Then in 2011, just four months before Paper Excellence took possession of Northern Pulp, Conservative MP for Central Nova, Peter MacKay, gave $28.1 million to the mill from the “Green Transformation Fund.”
Two mills, one narrative?
The narratives of the stories of the two mills — one in Nova Scotia and one in France — are remarkably similar.
In a nutshell, the Paper Excellence tale in Nova Scotia goes something like this:
An aging polluting pulp mill exceeds emissions limits, fails to ensure its pollution control equipment and effluent pipe are safe and in good working order, so the mill continues to produce profits for its owners while polluting water and air. Governments continue to hand out public money to encourage the mill to clean up its act. Then, one day, the mill doesn’t get what it wants — namely, approval for a highly controversial and flawed plan for a new effluent treatment facility — it declares insolvency, and puts its legal team to work trying to get still more government money while avoiding paying back its outstanding government loans.
As for Paper Excellence’s Fibre Excellence Tarascon mill in France, the Flamants Roses du Trébon spokesperson says the association boils down the “true nature of the multinational” and its business narrative this way:
I pollute, I declare bankruptcy, I organize a media campaign with elected officials and the forestry industry to get public money to save jobs, and then to get out of bankruptcy, I propose to buy the company and reduce the workforce, and set conditions that will allow me to continue to pollute without constraint.
Note: This article has been amended to reflect that it was the French government, and not the Flamants Roses du Trébon (LFRT) who took Fibre Excellence to court for pollution. It has also been updated with new information from the LFRT association.
- The extent of the environmental damage caused by the Northern Pulp mill — the air and water pollution, the environmental racism of Boat Harbour that was so important to the people of Pictou Landing First Nation, as well as the harmful forestry practices such as clearcutting and herbicide spraying introduced by Scott Paper when it opened the mill in 1967 — is documented in detail in my 2017 book, The Mill – Fifty Years of Pulp and Paper, which won the Atlantic Book Award for Scholarly Writing in 2018. ↩