Northern Pulp Mill at night. Photo courtesy of Tony DeCoste Photo-Video

The Boat Harbour Act will be enforced as of January 31, 2020,” announced Premier Stephen McNeil this morning. “Northern Pulp will be ordered to stop pumping effluent into Boat Harbour. And let me be clear: there will be no extension.

With that, McNeil upheld his promise to the Pictou Landing First Nation that Boat Harbour would no longer be polluted by the mill, and that remediation of Boat Harbour will begin next year.

In response, Northern Pulp announced that it will begin issuing layoff notices today, and will shut the mill completely in January.

McNeil placed the blame for the present situation, and for the impending mill closure, directly onto Northern Pulp. He said:

The mill now known as Northern Pulp has been pumping effluent into Boat Harbour for decades. Many governments have told the mill and its various owners that polluting needed to stop and that the old treatment system needed to be replaced with a new and modern facility. That has not happened. Year after year, and decade after decade, the mill has continued to pump effluent into Boat Harbor.

In 2015, our government passed legislation known as the Boat Harbour Act. That legislation gave Northern Pulp five years to get an environmental assessment and to start constructing a new cleaner operation.

First, the company filed an environmental assessment which was incomplete and did not include enough scientific information. The company was then asked to file a focused report. The regulator determined that Northern Pulp provided some of the scientific evidence required, but not enough to allow construction to begin. And now the company is being asked for a third time to file yet another report, an environmental assessment report, which will take at least two years.

Look at the history. The company has had five years and a number of opportunities to get out of Boat Harbour. And at this point, we are not even close to doing that. The company has put us all in a very difficult position. And now it is decision time. And this is one of the hardest decisions that we as a government have had to make. The commitment I made to clean up Boat Harbor was a serious one and not something our government did lightly. Many governments before us said they would clean it up, but did not. We will not repeat that pattern.

They’ve had five years to do the right thing and I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this and I’m disappointed, to say the least.

At a second press conference held immediately after McNeil’s press conference, Brian Baarda, who is CEO of Northern Pulp’s parent company, Paper Excellence Canada, blamed not Northern Pulp, but the Nova Scotia Department of Environment for the impending mill closure. He said:

Northern Pulp put together an excellent plan informed by third party subject matter experts based on sound science that showed no meaningful environmental impact, represented significant operational improvements, and ensured Nova Scotia’s forest sector and the thousands of employees could remain a vital part of this economy. 

It also enabled timely closure and remediation of Boat Harbour. The premier chose to disregard those facts. It is apparent that Nova Scotia Environment has long been unable to provide a definitive process over the last four and a half years. We have continued to respond to each and every additional request for further science. Our initial investigatory work changed dramatically from seven reports to 68 current individual areas of study. 

Had Nova Scotia Environment wanted a full environmental assessment from the outset, we would have been prepared to deliver it.

The claim that Northern Pulp put together an “excellent plan” based on “sound science” is contradicted by the evidence.

  1. In March 2019, then environment minister Margaret Miller found 19 key deficiencies in the Northern Pulp registration documents. Hence the request for the Focus Report.
  2. Then the Focus Report was panned by federal scientists and by the many independent ones engaged by PLFN, Friends of the Northumberland Strait, and the fishermen’s association … and a long list of others that were submitted to NSE. (See here for a fuller explanation.)
  3. Because the Focus Report was, as McNeil said, incomplete, and missing so much information required by the very clear Terms of Reference, Northern Pulp was asked to do a full environmental assessment. If it had done a decent job the first time, this would not have happened. And it should have been able to do the science right, given that NP was given $6 million from NS taxpayers for the effluent treatment facility design and environmental assessment process.
  4. So to pretend that the process was not clear, or that Northern Pulp would have done a full environmental assessment if it had been asked to, is misleading and disingenuous. The process is perfectly clear. And the company was given a break when the project was subject to the shorter Class I EA … and still it failed to submit the studies and information needed. It is the fault of Northern Pulp itself that it is now being asked for the full EA report.

Asked about $85 million in outstanding loans still owed the province by Northern Pulp, McNeil said “I fully expect that to be paid.”

The same question was asked of Brian Baarda, the Paper Excellence CEO. “Our focus today is not on those type of aspects,” said Baarda. “Our focus will be on getting back to the mill, talking to the employees that have been devastated by this news.”

Baarda ended the press conference soon after.

The future of the forestry industry

Biomass harvest. Photo courtesy Jamie Simpson

Supporters of the mill have said that its closure would result in the loss of 2,700 forest-related jobs, and that claim was repeated by both Baarda and Linda MacNeil, the director for Unifor Atlantic Region, the union which represents mill workers.

In his announcement, Stephen McNeil announced the creation of a $50 million transition fund, which “will support displaced workers, small contractors and all those whose livelihoods will be affected.”

Linda MacNeil, the union rep, said the $50 million promised is insufficient to replace what she said is $40 million annually the mill pays to its 300 employees.

The premier said the transition fund would help refocus the industry.

[The forest industry] needs to diversify and this [transition] team will help ensure that the forestry sector still has a place in the economy of Nova Scotia,” said McNeil. “And as a government we want and need a forest industry because it helps drive our rural economy. It will look different. It may have new customers in new markets. And this transition fund will help with that. “

In the question period after his announcement, McNeil elaborated, saying “this is about now transitioning in the sector to recognizing what are the other opportunities, what are the other options? It’s really come down to in many ways, the chips that are [in wood lots] across the province. Many of them have been using Northern Pulp as their sole [buyer]. We now need to look for diversified market for that product and other products that we have in this province.” He continued:

One of the biggest issues right now is in the sawmill sector in Nova Scotia, the chips that come out of the residual left over from sawing the logs have ended up in the one marketplace. And they’ve continued to allow Northern [Pulp] to dominate that market. And so we need to find markets for that. 

We believe in Europe there’s there are opportunities in all the hardwood chips that go out of Sheet Harbour now, we believe there are pockets where some of the softwood can be used as well. And our government announced that this coming fall there will be six biomass plants that will be online. Mind you, they will be taking a small amount of residual chips, but they will be part of the ongoing solution of how we continue, quite frankly, to make sure that we can get product out of mills across the province so that they can continue to operate.

Jeff Bishop, the executive director for Forest NS, which represents pulp mills, sawmills, private woodlot owners, and truckers throughout the supply chain that will be affected by the closure of Northern Pulp, is also contemplating what that transition will look like.

“There needs to be a place for those products (a million tonnes of wood chips a year) that are currently consumed by Northern Pulp,” Bishop told the Halifax Examiner. “The problem is a light switch has been flicked off and there simply isn’t another one to reach over and turn on. So there is going to be great period of uncertainty. You don’t create new markets overnight. The concern is there are thousands of Nova Scotians who are scrambling where to find the next switch.”

There will be other ripple effects from the government’s decision. Kraft pulp from the mill in Pictou County is the third largest export through the Port of Halifax. “There are also some 30,000 private woodlot owners that provide the bulk of the wood fibre to the forest sector and today the value of their land has been dramatically cut,” said Bishop. “Many of these lots have been in families for generations and are a form of RRSP.”

“I’ll take the premier at his word that in addition to the money, he will put the time and people within government departments who are interested in seeing forestry continue. I’m willing to work with him on that,” said Bishop.

Fishermen

The July 6 #NOPIPE land-and-sea rally against the Northern Pulp mill plans to pipe effluent into the Northumberland Strait Photo courtesy Gerard J. Halfyard

“I wouldn’t have wanted to be the premier today. He had a difficult decision to make,” said Allan MacCarthy, the head of the Northumberland Fisherman’s Association and a fierce opponent of the mill’s plan to continue to discharge 85 million liters of treated effluent each day into a part of the Strait where the lobster fishery has been very lucrative.

The fishermen who mounted a “NO PIPE” campaign could be viewed as winners in the fight against the mill’s plan to stay in business, but Allan MacCarthy wasn’t doing any gloating.

“The mill has tried to back the premier into a corner. It’s the eleventh hour and the premier made the right decision,” said MacCarthy. “They didn’t give him anything to work with. Northern Pulp was given a Class 1 environmental assessment in Nova Scotia, which would probably be one of the easiest in Canada and the company didn’t do enough work to finish that. So the premier had no choice in the matter. History is going to show he made the right decision.”

Pictou Landing First Nation

PLFN marchers. Photo: Joan Baxter

The premier stated plainly that he was addressing an act of racism against the people of Pictou Landing First Nation:

Over the last six years I’ve seen institutional racism that we have dealt with, whether it has been for the Home for Colored Children or Boat Harbour. Let’s be frank, in the 60s, it was acceptable to put our dumps next to African Nova Scotia communities. Somehow our ancestors thought that was OK. It’s not today, nor is it OK to allow Boat Harbour to continue. And I believe it was put there because it was next to an Aboriginal community.

After McNeil’s announcement, PLFN Chief Andrea Paul and her Band Council issued the following statement today:

Thank you to our supporters. 

Premier Stephen MacNeil had a very difficult decision to make today, a decision that will affect many people in our region, but we feel he made the correct decision. We are grateful that he has decided to put an end to the pollution, and [for] providing an opportunity for us to heal.

We hope the Province of Nova Scotia will work to help those who have been displaced, and there is a plan to help with the transition for those in the forestry industry. 

Cleaning up Boat Harbour is all our people have ever wanted and Premier Stephen MacNeil kept his promise and on behalf of my community we are thankful.

Brian Hebert, the PLFN’s legal counsel, was asked about the possible lawsuits against the province because of the Indemnity Agreement and the 2002 extension of the Boat Harbour Lease; he said:

I think the province should consider having the lease extension and indemnity agreement declared null and void on the grounds that they are contrary to public policy.

Hebert was in PLFN for the announcement, and sent Examiner reporter Joan Baxter a direct message: “Yes. We did it!!!!”

And:

The initial reaction was a mixture of disbelief and tremendous joy. There were tears, shouts of joy, much hugging and honking of horns. Many still in disbelief. The only hint of concern is the fear of how NP [Northern Pulp] supporters may react. People are worried about safety. Chief Andrea [Paul] said this was a huge acknowledgement and affirmation of Indigenous rights — not just for Nova Scotia.

From my perspective this is a turning point in the history of Nova Scotia; we have put the environment and Indigenous rights ahead of jobs. We have honoured the commitments we’ve made to our Mi’kmaq communities. The Premier has looked forward and has set the Province on what I think is the only responsible path — towards an economy that is sustainable. The days of jobs over the environment are behind us.”

Political reaction

After McNeil made his announcement, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston spoke with reporters.

“It’s an incredibly sad day for thousands of Nova Scotia families, people working in the woods, running porters, running the mills, delivering fuel, a devastating day for those families today,” said Houston. I totally got it. For those people, the effect it’s going to have on them over the next couple of years of their life.”

But Houston supported McNeil’s decision. “I’ve always said it’s the responsibility of government to uphold the law,” said Houston. “This is the law. The premier made a very powerful statement that the company is no closer today than it was five years ago to getting [out of] Boat Harbour. And that’s been weighing on my mind very heavy. I was always waiting for the company to get approval as a starting point for a project. And here we are today and there’s still no approval for a project. And that’s just what’s been weighing on my mind.”


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Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

Jennifer Henderson

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

Joan Baxter

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;...

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6 Comments

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  1. I am in awe of Premier McNeil for having the courage to uphold the law, for making the right decision for our province, and to the incredible Joan Baxter who shone the light. Thanks to the Halifax Examiner for excellent mill news coverage. My heart goes out to the employees and contractors who face 2020 with fear and uncertainty, Lets take care of one another.

  2. Baxter, Bousquet and Henderson thanks for this coverage!
    Yesterday, at Pictou Landing First Nation a diverse crowd attended the celebration and awaited the Premier’s decision. As diverse as that crowd was, there was a type of attentiveness in the crowd that was simmering with anticipation; no one was hyped – up. Pictou Landing and its people seem to generate that; it was a great thing to share.

    Premier MacNeil has set a higher standard, and other political leaders will have to examine how MacNeil dealt with this tough decision , and, if they’re smart, they’ll use it as a model. Ordinary people (the public) along with the various groups and their affiliations coalesced over the last five years. Yeah, that combination, finally, was heard, acknowledged and supported.

  3. $40m divide 300 is to say 300 over $133k per year jobs.

    I know people don’t like math. But when things are serious we also need serious numbers.

    I read the union today saying 11,500 jobs at stake.

    The media needs to hold people responsible for the numbers they use.

    1. Excellent point. When all else fails, hyperbole.
      Heard Gerry Diaz claim in a radio clip yesterday that the premier was putting put “tens of thousands of NS workers out of work just before Christmas”.
      While pro union in principle, that sort of garbage isn’t helping their cause at all.