Northern Pulp Mill. Photo: Halifax Examiner

A setback for the “No Pipe” movement and a victory for the Pictou County pulp mill yesterday. Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge Denise Boudreau  granted Northern Pulp a temporary injunction to prevent local fishermen from continuing with blockades she ruled interfered with a vessel hired by the mill to survey the bottom of Pictou Harbour and Northumberland Strait.

CSR GeoSurveys Limited was hired to do geotechnical and videographic work to gather information to determine where a pipe might be routed to discharge treated effluent from the 50-year-old mill when the wastewater treatment plant at Boat Harbour closes at the end of January,2020.

The McNeil government imposed that deadline in 2015 after decades of complaints from the neighbouring First Nation at Pictou Landing. The province is prepared to finance part of the cost of new treatment plant (at least $110 million as been earmarked) as compensation for breaking the terms of the mill’s lease 10 years early.

Photo: Jennifer Henderson

But the reason a crowd of 50-60 people demonstrated outside the Law Courts building before the hearing began yesterday was because lobster fishing in the Northumberland Strait is worth an estimated $1.2 billion a year to people in northern Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and opposition has been building to the company’s proposal to discharge treated effluent of any kind into those waters. A smaller group of pro-mill supporters also showed up and when a scuffle broke out, more than 10 city police officers arrived on the scene and remained inside the court house during the proceeding although the crowd went home.

The judge received video evidence of two separate blockades involving more than 20 fishing boats. Sworn affidavits from two CSR GeoSurveys Limited employees on board the survey vessel described repeated threats, harassment, and intimidation which prevented them from carrying out their work.

(A separate lawsuit filed by Northern Pulp against seven fishermen — see “Northern Pulp Mill sues fishermen,” Halifax Examiner, December 5 — described five separate blockade incidents since October 23 and death threats uttered against employees of CSR. Those allegations have not been proven and no date has been scheduled to hear that legal action).

In delivering an oral decision after hearing almost two hours of submissions, Justice Denise Boudreau granted Northern Pulp a temporary injunction and ordered the two sides to return to court January 29 to argue whether the injunction should be permanent.

“This Order does not stop protest but it does stop interference with Northern Pulp,” said Boudreau firmly. “The respondents (the fishermen) do not have the right to blockade. They do have the right to lawful protest but this does not include what has been put forward in the description from the applicant [Northern Pulp].”

Senior managers for the company left court quickly without speaking to reporters. Presumably, the survey boat will head out this week. Outside the courtroom after the hearing, Allan MacCarthy, who was one of four fishermen to whom the injunction specifically applies, said the decision was “not a surprise” and “this is just another skirmish in the battle with the mill.”  The judge included “Jane and John Doe” in the injunction to discourage anyone else who might be inclined to take a run at the survey boat.

MacCarthy said his fishing vessel isn’t currently on the water and he doesn’t plan to take it out. (Some demonstrators had suggested more on-the-water protests would continue regardless of the court’s decision.) Both MacCarthy and his lawyer Charles Thompson noted the fishermen had not admitted to any “unlawful conduct” contained in the affidavits from the survey crew and they intend to argue their actions last fall were part of “peaceful protest.”

Thompson also put forward an argument in court that the situation was not “urgent” enough to require a temporary injunction and could wait until the matter could be more fully thrashed out when a court date became available at the end of January. Northern Pulp lawyer Harvey Morrison countered by telling the court the survey work is essential to provide information to the environmental assessment process required by government to sanction a new wastewater treatment system.

Morrison argued if the January 2020 deadline isn’t met, the mill could close “at least temporarily” causing economic harm to the 330 people employed there and some 11,000 indirect jobs Northern Pulp claims depend upon it. He argued because of the blockades, the window to gather the geotechnical data is essentially one month while Pictou Harbour remains ice-free. On rebuttal, Thompson noted that the company had waited three-and-a-half years to begin surveying and had already indicated publicly it was unlikely to meet the January 2020 deadline.

Justice Boudreau said that argument was not one she would consider because “we simply don’t know what will happen in the future.” The judge said she was satisfied “winter is fast approaching and there would be ice in the Harbour.” She said she was also satisfied “a mill shutdown would cause harm” and the company had “time-sensitive work to complete to develop its proposal for government.”

The ban on blockades remains in place until at least January 29, 2019 when another hearing is scheduled and damages will be assessed.

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

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