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Feds reconsidering whether environmental assessment is needed for Northern Pulp’s proposal

WATCH: The federal government is reconsidering if the company’s proposal to replace the effluent treatment facility should undergo a federal environmental assessment. Alicia Draus has more.

The clock is ticking on the province’s January 31 deadline for Northern Pulp to shut down its effluent treatment plant in Boat Harbour.

The company submitted its proposal for a replacement facility in February. The new plan would involve pumping effluent into the Northumberland Strait, an idea that has been opposed by many, including fishing groups.

“It could affect the quality of the products that they harvest in that area, it could affect markets, it could affect people’s health. It could also affect the health of the ecosystem,” said environmental lawyer Jamie Simpson who is representing a number of those fishing groups.

READ MORE: Permanent injunction stops Nova Scotia fishermen’s blockade of Northern Pulp

For over a year fishermen have been calling for the federal government to take action and conduct an environmental assessment.

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“Because the provincial government has what appears to be a vested interest tied to the mill, it was seen that it would be better for the federal government to step in,” said Simpson.

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Now there’s a chance that could happen. Ottawa is reconsidering if a federal assessment is needed after new legislation about environmental assessments came into effect last Wednesday.

“The new law has the greater ability to factor in Indigenous concerns, or the rights of Indigenous peoples as well as a greater focus on the cumulative impacts of climate change, and the impacts on human health that major projects can have,”  said Sean Fraser, MP for Central Nova and parliamentary secretary to the minister of environment and climate change.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia First Nation starts official countdown on Boat Harbour

When the federal government last considered if a federal assessment was needed it was under the environmental assessment act of 2012 that came in under the conservative government.

“It didn’t allow the same level of consideration of Indigenous rights,” said Fraser.

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But the window for Ottawa to make a decision is closing. If the province gives Northern Pulp the green light to start construction and construction begins, Ottawa will no longer be able to conduct their own assessment.

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Northern pulp first submitted their proposal to Nova Scotia’s environment department in February. The province asked for more details shortly after and is now waiting on a focus report from Northern Pulp.

READ MORE: Battle over Nova Scotia pulp mill’s future reflects wider Canadian debate: filmmaker

When asked if a federal assessment would change the province’s approach, N.S. environment Minister Gordon Wilson said it doesn’t change their process.

“We’re bound by timelines and we will be working towards meeting those timelines,” he said.

Meanwhile Fraser says whether or not Ottawa conducts an assessment, the federal government is working with the province.

“At the end of the day both levels of government have a duty to make sure environmental protections are in place,” he said.

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Premier Stephen McNeil was not made available for comment on this story, but in the past has said he is not open to changing the January 31 deadline for the Boat Harbour facility closure.