Former premier and long-time Northern Pulp Nova Scotia director John Hamm says he has no regrets about his 2002 decision to sign a 25-year lease agreement with a previous owner of the Pictou County mill when his Progressive Conservatives were in power.
The Examiner tagged Hamm for a brief conversation Friday night following his appearance at the PC Party’s annual general meeting in Halifax.
The lease agreement allowed the mill to continue dumping wastewater into the already-polluted Boat Harbour lagoon on First Nations land until 2030. Breaking that lease 10 years early — as a result of legislation the McNeil Liberals passed in 2015 to close Boat Harbour and clean up the toxic mess — will cost Nova Scotia taxpayers either the price of building a new treatment facility (estimated at $130-million by the mill owner) or direct financial compensation to the Indonesian owners of Northern Pulp.
The size of that cheque to the mill’s owners is still being negotiated, but the payout is triggered by the existence of the current 25-year lease agreement between the mill and the Hamm government.
In a wrinkle that highlights the thin curtain between political and private careers in Nova Scotia, former Hamm is now Chair of the Board of Northern Resources Nova Scotia Corporation, the umbrella company for the mill’s operating company, Northern Pulp Nova Scotia (NPNS). Hamm has been a director of NPNS for the past decade.
The other corporate directors of the operating company include the mill’s general manager Bruce Chapman, technical manager Terri Fraser, and Choong Wei Tan of Richmond, British Columbia., the head office for Paper Excellence Canada.
But back to that brief conversation with Hamm. Given the significance of that Boat Harbour lease to the current situation, I asked the former premier if he had any regrets about that decision that saw Supply and Services Minister Ron Russell sign the long-term agreement in 2002 with then mill owner Kimberly-Clark.
“No, I don’t,” said Hamm without hesitation. “I’m from Pictou County and I know how important forestry is to this province and I know the history of the mill which has passed through a number of owners and governments. There have been a lot of past wrongs that the present company is having to wear.”
But couldn’t his government have chosen not to renew the lease, or at least commit to a shorter period than 25 years?
“Look,” said Hamm, “the previous government had made that commitment to the company and I don’t like breaking agreements that a previous government made.”
That’s partly true. The previous 10-year lease signed by Liberal Supply and Services Minister Gerald O’Malley was coming up for renewal (or not) in 2005. O’Malley was the same short-sighted cabinet minister in the John Savage government who in 1995 also signed an Indemnity Agreement which transferred any cost or liability associated with the shutdown or idling of the Boat Harbour treatment facility from the mill to the provincial taxpayer. That piece of paper, like the long-term lease, could also wind up costing big bucks. It makes one wonder which lawyer or lawyers gave the government advice on that file.
Still, in 2002 the Hamm government could have (a) opted for a shorter lease term or (b) done what the McNeil government finally did in 2015: pass legislation giving the company a deadline to find a new treatment option. A reading of author Joan Baxter’s book The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest indicates that in 2002, there was still hope the treatment facility might close in 2005 as promised under the terms of the lease signed by Liberal O’Malley. But it didn’t happen.
Instead, a subsequent report in 2004 from an environmental consultant hired by the mill’s new owner — Neenah Paper — nixed a plan previously negotiated between the mill’s previous owner and the previous Liberal government to shutter the Boat Harbour lagoons and pipe the effluent farther into the Northumberland Strait because it could potentially cause more problems than it would solve. Sound familiar? Or prophetic?
Today, with the fishing community and the forestry community at loggerheads over the future of the mill, it seems inevitable there will be winners and losers. And aboriginal interest in ending more than half a century of the province permitting a succession of corporations to pollute its land, water, and air is a dimension which cannot be underestimated.
John Hamm hinted mysteriously there is a group working hard to bring the sides together, but that’s all he would say. Murky.