Northern Pulp Mill (book cover photo from Joan Baxter’s Book, The Mill). Photo courtesy of Dr. Gerry Farrell Credit: Dr. Gerry Farrell

At 4:38pm yesterday, Northern Pulp sent out a two-page statement to media.

That’s right; moments after provincial employees would have gone home (or at least shut down their work accounts on their computers because they are already working from home to respect public health directives), and after many journalists would have logged off for the long weekend, Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence decided the time was right to issue a statement. Its headline read:

Northern Pulp prepared to invest in modernizing mill and revitalizing Nova Scotia’s forestry sector.

As if just yesterday the company suddenly came to the conclusion that it was prepared to modernize the 53-year-old pulp mill that has been in hibernation since January, and decided that it had to tell the world. On the eve of the Easter weekend. During the worst health crisis this planet has seen in a century.

As if the statement was even news.

It begins like this:

Northern Pulp Nova Scotia (Northern Pulp) has requested Nova Scotia Environment issue a timely, well-defined, and outcome-based Environmental Assessment process for its proposed Effluent Treatment Facility (ETF) modernization.

Northern Pulp is committed to operating in Nova Scotia in an environmentally sustainable manner and contributing to the much-needed economic benefits of a healthy and prosperous community and forestry sector.

“We want to continue to invest and operate in Nova Scotia and are committed to working closer with local governments and residents to coexist like the other 89 pulp and paper mills do in their communities across Canada,” said Graham Kissack, Vice President of Environment, Health & Safety and Communications, Paper Excellence Canada, the owner of Northern Pulp. “A timely, well-defined, and outcome-based Environmental Assessment process is the first step.”

A quick recap, in case anyone has missed out on the many ways that Northern Pulp has failed to provide the province with the information it requires since it submitted its first registration documents in January 2019 to begin the environmental assessment process for its new effluent treatment facility.

(Recall too that under a secret agreement, the Nova Scotian government gave Northern Pulp $6 million to cover the costs of the studies for the design and engineering of the new facility. It’s also worth remembering that Northern Pulp is a Paper Excellence Company, and part of the corporate empire of the multi-billionaire Widjaja family of Indonesia. The company still owes the province more than $85 million dollars in outstanding loans, and has received a great deal of public money and other forms of largesse over the decades.)

In March 2019, then-Environment Minister Margaret Miller found 19 key deficiencies deficiencies in the registration documents, and determined that Northern Pulp must submit a Focus Report.

Minister Miller’s decision that lists the deficiencies, originally found here, seems to have disappeared from the Nova Scotia Environment web page devoted to the project.

Then in December 2019, Environment Minister Gordon Wilson determined that there was information missing from the Focus Report, something several federal government agencies had also found. Wilson’s decision letter stated that there had been a “thorough review” of the information Northern Pulp submitted, that information had been obtained from “municipal, provincial and federal reveiwers and the public” as part of the EA review, and that:

After reviewing the additional information and analysis provided in the Focus Report, I have determined that there is not enough information to properly assess whether there may be adverse effects or significant environmental effects on fish, air, water resources and human health.

Wilson decided that Northern Pulp would have to submit a full Environmental Assessment Report.

Until then, Northern Pulp had repeatedly indicated that if it didn’t get approval for its new effluent treatment facility — that would involve pumping up to 85 million litres of treated effluent a day into the Northumberland Strait — it would have to close permanently. But in early January 2020, Northern Pulp did an about-face and announced that it would continue with the environmental assessment process, and put the mill into hibernation.

The government issued the draft Terms of Reference (TORs) for the environmental assessment (EA) report on January 8, 2020, and invited public comment until February 7, 2020.

Nova Scotia Environment is to release the final TORS this month.

A media statement, or an ultimatum?

Rather than wait for the government to finalize the TORs, however, Northern Pulp decided to issue a statement to the media, listing in no uncertain terms the way Nova Scotia Environment should implement “specific environmental assessment report processes and guidelines” for the mill’s new effluent treatment facility.

Although the statement says Northern Pulp is “requesting” these terms, it reads very much like an thinly-veiled ultimatum.

I emailed the statement to Brian Hebert, legal counsel for Pictou Landing First Nation, for his thoughts on it.

He replied that it looked like a summary of Northern Pulp’s response to the draft TORs for its environmental report, which it was expected to file with Nova Scotia Environment, adding:

I wasn’t expecting to see a media release summarizing it. You can be sure the submissions are more substantial and detailed. I’d have to see the full response to understand fully what NP [Northern Pulp] is seeking. The devil is in the details.

Hebert wrote that he found it “interesting” that in the statement, Northern Pulp is asking for an independent panel review, which would be a possible outcome after the environment minister reviewed the EA report:

Many people might support an independent panel. The backdrop is that we would have had a review panel had this been a Class 2 assessment from the beginning, something I did not see NP supporting before now. It may be an effort to ensure that the overall EA process is completed as soon as possible.

Hebert is suspicious of Northern Pulp’s desire to see an independent panel of experts:

The call for an independent panel of “experts” is code for “you have no idea what you’re talking about so let’s let the experts decide.” Obviously choice of experts would be critical.

What NP is suggesting is troubling as they are calling for experts familiar with pulp and paper waste (generally a closed club of industry folk) and also familiar with the pulp and paper effluent regulations (the ones currently in place were created in 1992 and are in for an overhaul). This signals they want only to be judged on the minimum standards set out in the PPER [pulp and paper effluent regulations] rather than the actual potential impacts of the effluent on the [Northumberland] Strait since the PPER are volume based minimal standards i.e. permitting so much of a regulated contaminant per volume of pulp produced in a one-size-fits-all set of parameters.

In other words using PPER only would mean the actual amount of a contaminant that might go into the Strait and the actual impact of that contaminant on the marine environment is irrelevant — so long as the PPER are met. This is a non-starter.

He continues:

NP has asked for clear guidelines as to what valued environmental components ought to be considered. I thought this was clear from the terms of reference. It seems like NP wants hard numbers or goals to achieve…

NP wants to make use of their submissions in the initial environmental assessment registration document and the focus report which they think is substantial. If they can let the industry expert panel look at that, the experts would agree there is no harm, is their thinking. There were significant concerns with the earlier work, but NP must be hoping that an expert panel of industry professionals would not put as much weight in the criticisms as the government folks.

I’ve emailed Northern Pulp to ask if the statement was a summary of comments it had submitted to the province in response to the draft TORS for the environmental assessment report, and if so, why it had decided to release this information to the media. If I receive a reply, I’ll report on it.

Bad timing

Apart from the actual details of what Northern Pulp is pushing for, there is also the question of the timing and the reason it chose to release this statement now.

The company decided to announce to the world — on the eve of Good Friday and in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis — how it thinks the provincial regulator should be doing its job and what terms it thinks it should have to fulfill.

Corporate bullying is not rare in this province, but it is rarely as blatant as this.

The “statement” landed the same day that Freeman Lumber announced that it was closing, “throwing 150 out of work,” a decision co-owner Richard Freeman told CBC reporter Michael Gorman had nothing to do with the COVID-19 crisis, and everything to do with the closure of Northern Pulp.

A few large mill owners and key Northern Pulp allies have repeatedly blamed the closure of the mill on Premier Stephen McNeil, who refused to cave to their pressure to allow it to continue pumping effluent into Boat Harbour after January 31, 2020, and instead respected his promise to Pictou Landing First Nation to respect the Boat Harbour Act, ending more than half a century of one of the most egregioust cases of environmental racism in the country.

Is it a coincidence that the Northern Pulp statement and the Freeman announcement were just hours apart?

Maybe. Maybe not. The Northern Pulp statement hypes the importance of the mill to forestry sector jobs in the province, or from another perspective, the unhealthy dependence that the sector had developed on the now-dormant mill. Its last sentence reads:

The modernization and restart of Northern Pulp would re-establish more than 300 well-paying direct jobs in Pictou County and more than 2,500 forestry sector jobs throughout the province.

If you think you’ve heard that before, it’s because you have. Many, many times, in the expensive and extensive PR and advertising campaigns that Northern Pulp (and Unifor) waged in the last two years to try to persuade the government and people of Nova Scotia that without the mill, the province’s economy would collapse.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are learning what a true crisis looks like, and are struggling to cope with it. Life as we knew it is on hold. The government is working overtime to find the best way to flatten the curve, contain the spread of the coronavirus and keep the number of deaths to a minimum, and expecting citizens to cooperate with them by staying home and giving up socializing with family and friends. Healthcare workers and others in essential services continue to make enormous sacrifices to try to protect the public from the virus. It is safe to say that it is what everyone is worried about. Everyone is suffering. Everyone.

Did Northern Pulp acknowledge any of this in its statement? Did it even mention the scourge of the COVID-19 crisis, or express any concern for the people of Nova Scotia in these extremely difficult and trying times?

Nope. Not a single word.

This is unfathomable. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s indicative of how much compassion Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence has for the public good and for public health in this province.

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Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website:; Twitter @joan_baxter

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  1. A “modern” plant or just an improved effluent treatment (disposal) system? I have gone over the item on NP’s announcement a couple of times, and I did not see any specifics about modernizing the plant itself. We may have read too much into the announcement. Surely investing in a modern plant would entail much more than just satisfying the province (to some extent) regarding effluent disposal.

  2. OK, Northern Pulp, now please tell us that you are going to build a world-class, entirely land based waste processing system and support the Lahey Recommendations for reforming forestry.