Item number 15 on the agenda of last week’s council meeting of the Municipality of the County of Colchester County was “Northern Pulp Misinformation.”
Four hours into the meeting, held on Zoom, the item finally made the floor.
The municipality’s director of public works, Michelle Boudreau, told Council she had put together a “Frequently Asked Question item” about the disposal of Northern Pulp wastewater in the Central Colchester Wastewater Treatment Facility, because a number of councillors had been getting questions and comments about it.
Boudreau said she hoped the document would provide “Council some of the background on the wastewater, and how long we’ve been accepting it, and the nature of the wastewater, as well as our ability to treat it.”
She made no reference to any “misinformation.”
Boudreau asked if anyone had questions, and no one did.
But Mayor Christine Blair didn’t leave it there.
Addressing Council, Blair said, “I know there have been a couple of media stories. One in the local Truro News that was accurate, based on the information that was passed on to them from our director through me.”
Then came this.
“And the other was kind of [pauses] different, shall I say, ” said Blair.
“Truth was almost an option,” she quipped.
The Council then went into a closed (secret) session and the Zoom session was closed to the public.
“Truth was almost an option”
Now it is possible Blair was referring to another article when she made that comment, but I think the chances of that are about ten million to one, so I’m going to go with the assumption that she was indeed suggesting the Halifax Examiner saw “truth” only as “optional” in its reporting on Northern Pulp’s wastewater deal.
The first media story on the subject — and the only one that addressed it in depth — was the September 7, 2021 Halifax Examiner article, “Wastewater from Northern Pulp’s hibernating paper mill is being discharged into the Bay of Fundy.”
So let’s back up a bit, and have a look at the merits of that comment, and where the truth really lies.
To begin, the FAQ document developed for Council on the disposal of Northern Pulp refutes absolutely nothing contained in the Halifax Examiner article.
In fact, all it does is answer in a very general way a few questions about the deal between the Municipality of the County of Colchester and Northern Pulp to dispose of wastewater from the site of the hibernating mill on Abercrombie Point in Pictou County.
Which, of course, the County could have done when I first sent them a list of straightforward questions about the wastewater disposal.
On July 20 this year, I sent these questions to Michelle Boudreau:
- Is wastewater from Northern Pulp being disposed of in the Central Colchester Wastewater Treatment Facility?
- If so, what is the provenance of this wastewater? What does it contain? And how much is being disposed of every day / week/ month?
- Is there a fee involved? Does Northern Pulp pay for this disposal? Or does the province of Nova Scotia cover it?
- Is Nova Scotia Environment monitoring the wastewater, analyzing it and advising on the disposal schedule?
- Does Nova Scotia Environment issue a permit to the municipality for this wastewater disposal? Or is there a contractual arrangement? If so, would it be possible to see the documentation?
- For how long will this disposal continue? (What is the total amount envisioned?)
A response came the next day from Scott Fraser, Director of Corporate Services for the Municipality, who said the director of public works was out of the office and asked if I could wait a week for an answer.
I said I could.
Then, an hour later, Fraser wrote to say, “Our process requires that a FOIPOP [Freedom of Information] request be submitted.”
So I filed a FOIPOP, and on September 2, received the packages with redactions. There were 86 pages of communications between Colchester County officials and Northern Pulp, and also several pages of Northern Pulp invoices for 2020 and 2021.
The Examiner article was based on the verbatim contents that came from those documents released through the FOIPOP, which was all there was to go on from the County itself.
The matter was never discussed in any open sessions of Council meetings.
As a result, the Examiner went looking for any information about the deal from other reliable sources.
That included a report in April 2021 by Maurice Rees in The Shoreline Journal that hinted at the deal.
There were also some references to the wastewater disposal in documents filed with the British Columbia Supreme Court, where, since June 2020, Northern Pulp — a Paper Excellence company that is part of the global corporate empire of the multi-billionaire Widjaja family of Indonesia — and eight of its affiliates have declared themselves insolvent and been under creditor protection under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA).
An email from November 3, 2020 to Michelle Boudreau (then Newell) from Northern Pulp that was released as part of the FOIPOP, referred to a Court Monitor’s Report, on which the Examiner also reported in the article.
The Examiner also contacted the provincial Department of Environment and Climate Change and Northern Pulp with questions about the wastewater, and reported word-for-word the answers received.
So what did Blair mean when she told Council that “truth was only an option” in the Examiner article?
To find out, after the meeting ended, I wrote to Blair and asked her four questions:
- What do you mean by “truth was almost an option”? Was there anything that was not factual or “true” in the article?
- If so, please can you list everything that was inaccurate?
- If not, please explain why you said these things about the article in front of Council.
- Your new wastewater manager (hired in August 2021) is a former Northern Pulp employee (a buyer for the company), who as recently as June 2020 was working in “woodlands accounting” for Northern Pulp. Court documents from British Columbia show that Northern Pulp is currently negotiating an extension on its contract with the Municipality for the continued disposal of its wastewater in the Central Colchester Wastewater Treatment Facility. Will the new wastewater manager be part of those negotiations, or will he recuse himself from them?
There was no answer, so the next day I sent the questions again, and also asked her what the “misinformation” in Agenda Item 15 referred to.
Again, no answer.
Northern Pulp negotiating for “reasonable” terms
The contract between the Municipality of the County of Colchester and Northern Pulp is set to expire at the end of this year.
According to the eighth and latest Monitor Report from British Columbia’s Supreme Court, Northern Pulp and its affiliates “continue to work with their wastewater treatment partner to obtain reasonable contract terms for wastewater removal. A new wastewater treatment agreement will be required during the proposed stay period.”
The most recent and sixth “stay period” for continued creditor protection that the Court granted to the Northern Pulp companies lasts until April 30, 2022.
In other words, Northern Pulp is currently negotiating “reasonable contact terms” with the Municipality for continued use of the Central Colchester Wastewater Facility.
As noted above, the Examiner asked Blair if the new wastewater manager for the Municipality, hired in August this year, who was as recently as June 2020 still doing “woodlands accounting” for Northern Pulp and who before that was a “buyer” for the company, would be part of the negotiations over wastewater disposal for Northern Pulp.
The Examiner also wrote to the new wastewater manager, Phillip Redden, asking him the same question.
Neither has replied.
Blair told Saltwire in an interview in 2020, that before she entered municipal politics, one of the positions she held was as office manager, NS Forest Products Association, which later changed its name to Forest Nova Scotia.
Forest Nova Scotia is the lobby group for industrial forestry in the province and is also one of Northern Pulp’s largest cheerleaders — if not the largest. Before the mill closed in 2020, Forest Nova Scotia distributed the “Nova Scotia Needs Forestry” signs that were part of a campaign by the industry to keep the mill open.
In recent months, a “group” calling themselves “Friends of a New Northern Pulp” has sprung up on Facebook and Twitter. Its steering committee is made up of the who’s who in big forestry and mills in the province, some of whom were extremely active in trying to have the mill stay open back in 2019:
- Robin Wilber, Elmsdale Lumber
- Peter Spicer, Seven Gulches Forestry
- Ryan Scott, Scott & Stewart Forestry
- Andy MacGregor, MacGregor Industrial Group
- Earle Miller, Woodlot Owner & Woodlot Manager [who shows up in a 2019 “biomass” report from Great Northern Timber, as “VP – Procurement and Operations for Great Northern Timber]
Wooing and suing Nova Scotia at the same time
But Northern Pulp is doing more just than spearheading a propaganda offensive in the province.
And at the same time, incredibly, Northern Pulp is preparing to sue the pants off the province for an estimated $450 million in lost profits because the mill didn’t manage to put forward a decent proposal for a new effluent treatment that passed muster and earned environmental approval from the province, and telling us we should be pleased because the huge settlement — more than a hundred million dollars — would mean the multi-billionaire corporate empire behind Paper Excellence will be able to afford to modernize and restart the mill.
In the province’s October 26, 2021 response to Northern Pulp’s application for another stay in the BC Court, Counsels Robert Grant and Maurice Chiasson write:
The Province objects to the allocation of $450,000 from the interim financing to preserve litigation rights against the Province for claims alleged to have arisen from the passage of the Boat Harbour Act …
They point out that because Northern Pulp and fellow petitioners are “not using their own funds in the CCAA proceedings” and are drawing on the interim financing:
… there appears to be no real impetus for the Applicants to focus on the environmental issues that are at the heart of the CCAA proceedings. The Province sees little progress on the environmental assessment for the alternative effluent treatment facility, but does see continued requests by the Applicants [Northern Pulp companies] for additional funding. These requests are the Province’s sole financial risk to bear …
The Province is concerned that the Applicants are using the CCAA process to fund their litigation against the Province under the guise of a restructuring, all the while enjoying the significant protections afforded by the CCAA …
As has been maintained from the beginning of the CCAA proceedings, the Province denies any liability to Northern Pulp from the passage of the Boat Harbour Act and strongly objects to being asked to subordinate its security position so that Northern Pulp and the Applicants can pursue litigation against it.
While the Province wishes to continue to try to work with the Applicants, the narrative being advanced by the Applicants is based on a public relations strategy and does not reflect the reality of the work required in the environmental assessment process. The use of the CCAA proceedings for anything other than the intended purpose cannot be entertained to allow the Applicants to continue to use these proceedings to advance their singular interests.
Northern Pulp’s “public relations strategy” continues, and on at 7:28pm on Friday, October 29, it issued its latest press release.
Once again, the people of Nova Scotia are being asked to believe that Northern Pulp has only the best interests of “all stakeholders” at heart, even as it proceeds with litigation against the province.
No mention of the $86 million that the company still owes the province in outstanding loans, which it is not repaying while under creditor protection, or the company’s continued access to Crown land leases where it can continue to clearcut.
But hey, the truth is just an option.
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