Premier Stephen McNeil speaks to reporters, Thursday January 9, 2020. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Nova Scotians learned two new and startling facts following a meeting of cabinet ministers in Halifax yesterday.

Asked if he plans to stay and fight another election, Premier Stephen McNeil said yes, he’s staying. An hour later, Northern Pulp Nova Scotia issued a statement saying it wants to stay in Nova Scotia. The company is planning to put the mill into indefinite “hibernation” while it attempts to pass an environmental assessment required by the province to construct a new effluent treatment facility. It would replace the one at Boat Harbour the McNeil government ordered closed by January 31, 2020.

“Despite recent set-backs, we remain committed to the province and want to operate in Nova Scotia for the long-term,” reads the statement issued by the media relations department of Northern Pulp Nova Scotia. “We intend to complete an environmental assessment for our proposed effluent treatment facility and are in the process of reviewing the terms of reference. Our team is currently focused on supporting our employees, developing plans for a safe and environmentally responsible hibernation, and working with the Government of Nova Scotia and stakeholders to determine next steps.”

It could take 18 months to two years for the company to complete the Class 1 Environmental Assessment. The premier said the decision taken by Paper Excellence Canada (the parent company of Northern Pulp) does not change the fact production at the mill will cease at the end of this month because the holding ponds next to the Pictou Landing First Nation will no longer be legally available to take the waste.

McNeil made that commitment to Chief Andrea Paul back in 2014 after a pipe broke, spilling effluent. The legislation passed in 2015 to close the Boat Harbour facility makes the province liable for costs (and potentially lost profits) associated with breaking its lease with the 52-year-old mill 10 years early.

“Production will cease on the 31st of this month but what the company is talking about, as an Environmental Assessment going forward, is if they choose to re-start then they would have a path. It’s not uncommon that a plant gets mothballed. It’s in essence winterizing the facility so that it can be dormant for however long. There’s one in Saskatchewan where it’s been 10 years.”

McNeil said no (further) money from taxpayers will be spent on Northern Pulp’s environmental assessment nor on the cost of mothballing the mill. He said the pipe that carries wastewater into Boat Harbour is owned by the province and that will have to be cleaned up and disconnected after production at the mill stops.

“Listen, we are cleaning up and closing Boat Harbour,” said McNeil. “What we want to do is allow this proponent to be able to winterize its property and we will do what we can to make that happen in collaboration with Chief Andrea and the Pictou Landing First Nation.”

This situation is different from the one in 2012 when the NDP government under Premier Darrell Dexter ponied up $36 million of taxpayer’s money to keep a shuttered paper mill at Point Tupper in a state of “hot idle” to attract a new buyer. The Stern group eventually bought and continues to operate Port Hawkesbury Paper after receiving a discount on its power bill and permission to burn biomass to generate some of its own electricity.

Against the backdrop of the premier’s decision and Paper Excellence Canada’s decision, a transition team appointed by the premier on December 20 met for the first time. The role of the team, which includes eight representatives from various parts of the forestry industry and government departments, is to advise on the use of a $50 million fund to assist people whose livelihoods will be lost or disrupted when the 50-year-old mill closes. ($7 million of that has been dedicated to forestry workers planting and thinning trees.) The team is also tasked with finding replacement or alternative markets for 700,000 tonnes of low-grade wood and chips Northern Pulp purchased from sawmills and woodlot owners that were a source of income for thousands in the supply chain.

Forestry Transition Team. Left to right: Don Bureaux, president, Nova Scotia Community College; Simon d’Entremont, deputy minister, Department of Energy and Mines; Debbie Reeves, chair, Large Private Non-Industrial Landowners of Nova Scotia; Julie Towers, deputy minister, Department of Lands and Forestry; Premier Stephen McNeil; Kelliann Dean, deputy minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and Trade, transition team lead; Jeff Bishop, executive director, Forest Nova Scotia; Ava Czapalay, acting deputy minister, Department of Labour and Advanced Education; Greg Watson, manager, North Nova Forest Owners Co-op Ltd. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

NDP leader Gary Burrill was critical of the government’s lack of action in the months leading up to the Environment Department’s rejection of the mill’s plan for a new waste treatment plant and “the hell many people have gone through in the past three weeks” waiting for answers.

Burrill said he believes the transition team has been placed at “a terrible disadvantage by the government’s failure to do the planning about the diversification of markets and what the woods world would like potentially minus Northern Pulp. Everyone who has been faced with this question for the last 18 months has known that the situation we are in today was a very real possibility,” continued Burrill. “It is altogether unhelpful that the government only began to put together a plan for this (by all the evidence) in the three days before the closure was announced.”

Asked by reporters what alternative markets for low-grade wood and chips might replace Northern Pulp, the only suggestion McNeil offered involved burning biomass to produce electricity at plants owned by Emera at Brooklyn and Port Hawkesbury Paper in Cape Breton.

That’s not going to be popular with environmental groups such as the Healthy Forest Coalition and Ecology Action Centre that say burning trees to produce electricity contributes to climate change and in some cases, produces more carbon emissions than the burning of  coal.

Tory Rushton, MLA for Cumberland South and the PC critic for Lands & Forestry, said he’s been hearing from truckers and forestry contractors from Yarmouth to Cumberland County who have requested a meeting with Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin and been turned down. “They want leadership within the sector and they don’t feel they are getting it,” said Rushton. “They want a government that is proactive rather than reactive.”

Rushton said the industry also wants to know where Rankin stands on changes to harvesting practices recommended by the Lahey Report. Rankin promised revised Forest Management Guides would be out at the end of 2019. Rushton said if the Northern Pulp situation has caused the government to “hit pause” on revising the guides, Minister Rankin should be transparent and say so. McNeil said Rankin was absent from Cabinet Thursday for personal reasons. Environment Minister Wilson was also absent.

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

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  1. Densified wood products ; Sounds like another name for Glulam beams and CLT ( Cross laminated timber sheets ) that are stronger than plywood and have a higher burn temperature . These are just starting to be manufactured in Canada .

  2. The Lahey Report is a prime example of proactivity. The recommendations in it set a new path for forestry in the province. The report also carefully stipulates that clear-cutting needs to be reduced, and it identifies where clear-cuts would be advisable or not advisable.
    As for alternatives to consider in the forestry sector, would it be worthwhile to investigate the patented process developed at the University of Maryland with ‘densified wood’. The products, as I understand it, have attributes that can be applied to many industries including those that currently use steel for structural reasons.There is also a project where Google is involved in a Toronto neighborhood that is using this product in the construction of multi-storey buildings.

    Professor Ting Li is one of the developers of this new product. There are a few videos on-line that demonstrate the products uses and its overall utility and cost effectiveness. The process can use any type of tree- including those “low value” ones that have been used in the pulping process. The professors from the University of Maryland who have developed this technology and the products stemming from it are an impressive lot, and they trumpet the ‘green nature’ of the process and the products.
    I was unable to find in their research any comment as to the pollutants that have to be dealt with in this process of partial lignin removal, polymer injections and compressing of the product. Maybe it is worth a look.