The owners of a large Nova Scotia pulp mill are suggesting the operation will be forced to shut down – threatening 300 jobs – unless the province extends a legislated deadline for closing the highly polluted waste water facility at Boat Harbour.
The existing deadline is one year away – Jan. 31, 2020. The company was originally given five years to design and build another treatment facility to replace the fetid lagoon near the Pictou Landing First Nation.
Speaking at a news conference Thursday, Northern Pulp spokeswoman Kathy Cloutier said the company needs about another year to get the job done.
“Some will say they have heard this before, and look where we are now. We recognize this, and relish the opportunity to be the exception rather than the rule,” she said, referring to the fact that the mill’s previous owners routinely made cleanup promises they did not keep.
“If we have no barriers or hiccups, then we would be looking for (an extension) in the proximity of a year.”
Cloutier said if the province rejects the request, the mill will not break the law by continuing to dump effluent into Boat Harbour past the deadline. That means the mill would almost certainly be forced to shut down, at least temporarily.
The company said another 2,040 jobs depend on the mill, which opened in 1967.
WATCH: Pictou Landing First Nation kicks off Boat Harbour closure countdown.
Premier Stephen McNeil has consistently said his government has no intention of extending the deadline in the Boat Harbour Act, legislation that was drafted after a serious effluent spill at the Pictou Landing First Nation.
He confirmed Thursday he had spoken with company officials, but he said he had not changed his mind.
“The deadline is the deadline,” he said after a cabinet meeting. “We gave them five years.”
However, the premier also said he would be open to hearing proposals from residents of the Pictou area, including the local Tory members of the legislature. He said if a consensus was reached on amending the act, that could be debated on the floor of the legislature.
However, McNeil said if the company tried to keep dumping effluent in Boat Harbour after the deadline, the government would move to close the pipe.
“They’ll have to determine how long the mill could be down,” he said. “They can’t continue to put effluent into Boat Harbour … Logically, that means that mill would have to stop production.”
Cloutier said a temporary shutdown is not a realistic option, especially in the winter months.
If the operation was slowed to a so-called “hot idle” mode, it would still be pumping out waste, she said.
“A shutdown of any kind is not really a scenario that is workable,” Cloutier said, though she confirmed the mill shuts down annually to allow for maintenance.
“They run better when they are consistently run. With the annual shutdown, it takes upwards of four to six days to be up and running at full tilt … It does not serve this kind of equipment well … to go into a non-operational mode.”
The chief of Pictou Landing First Nation, Andrea Paul, has said the deadline must not be extended. The 600 members of the band marked the beginning of an official one-year countdown during a ceremony Thursday morning.
Paul said the company should not have held its news conference on the same day as the First Nations’ event.
“Northern Pulp knows how important this day is to our community,” Paul said in a statement released late Wednesday.
“Northern Pulp has just shown us what their new era of improved Indigenous relations will look like. I guess we should be glad they are so obvious about it.”
Ronnie Heighton, president of the Northumberland Fishermen’s Association, said his group has no reason to trust the company.
“As far as we’re concerned, the date is the date – and they had five years,” he said in an interview. “They just wasted time away.”
The association is opposed to Northern Pulp’s plan to build a pipeline that would dump treated waste water directly into the Northumberland Strait.
WATCH: Author of The Mill returns to talk more about Northern Pulp and a county divided
The company has insisted the water will be largely unaffected within two metres of the pipeline’s discharge point.
“The stuff will still be there,” said Heighton, whose group represents about 600 fishermen who fish for lobster, herring, rock crab, snow crab, scallops and oysters. “We’re talking about … tonnes of solids per day. After about 30 years, the stuff will be on the surface.”
The company confirmed Thursday it had submitted an environmental assessment application to the province for its new treatment and pipeline plan.
Company officials say design and engineering work for the replacement treatment system has been completed, adding that its application to the provincial Environment Department is the result of 28 studies.
The company has said the treated effluent it plans to pump into the strait will meet federal regulations for emissions, but opponents say there’s a lack of scientific evidence regarding how the waste will affect the long-term health of the waterway.