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Concerned groups urge N.S. to reject mill’s plan to pump effluent into strait

WATCH: On Tuesday a coalition of groups urged the Nova Scotia government to reject a proposal from Northern Pulp mill to pump treated wastewater into the Northumberland Strait. Jesse Thomas has more.

The Northern Pulp mill’s plan to pump treated wastewater into the Northumberland Strait lacks information and minimizes the risk to fishing grounds in the vicinity, a coalition of groups said Tuesday as they urged the Nova Scotia government to reject the proposal.

The Town of Pictou, Pictou Landing First Nation, fishermen from across the Maritimes and the environmental group Friends of the Northumberland Strait voiced their concerns during a news conference in Pictou, N.S.

They were responding to a required focus report the mill submitted to the provincial Environment Department in early October that proposed pumping up to 85 million litres of treated effluent into the strait daily.

Jill Graham-Scanlan of Friends of the Northumberland Strait said assessments by all of the concerned groups found that the report, which contained thousands of pages, nonetheless lacked critical information and didn’t meet the department’s terms of reference.

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“Northern Pulp’s conclusion that there will be no significant lasting harm to the environment or human health is not credible or supported by science,” Graham-Scanlan said.

“For these reasons and others, we are asking the minister of environment to reject Northern Pulp’s proposal.”

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READ MORE: N.S. pulp mill focus report put online to gain Nova Scotians’ input

The province asked for the focus report following an environmental review in March, when then-environment minister Margaret Miller said the government needed more information about the plan for the proposed effluent treatment plant near Pictou.

Northern Pulp subsequently submitted thousands of pages of documents to the department in an attempt to gain approval.

The public had until Nov. 8 to submit comment, and Environment Minister Gordon Wilson is to make a final decision on the treatment plant by mid-December.

Hanging over that decision is provincial legislation passed in 2015 that gave the mill until Jan. 31, 2020, to come up with a new treatment plant project. Company officials have said if their plan is not approved, the mill will close, putting more than 300 employees out of work.

The legislated deadline is part of a key government commitment to the Pictou Landing First Nation to clean up the Boat Harbour treatment lagoon, which is located on the doorstep of the Mi’kmaq community and currently holds the mill’s wastewater.

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“There were just too many things missing from the focus report,” Pictou Landing Chief Andrea Paul said Tuesday.

“Based on that, there’s no way that I feel comfortable – or people in my community would feel comfortable – with this project moving forward.”

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Paul said she believes the province will abide by its legislated deadline and not seek an extension. She said Premier Stephen McNeil has made it clear what’s required of the mill.

“Based on what I’ve learned today, I can’t see how they could even accept this project as it stands,” she said.

Hundreds marched from Pictou Landing First Nation to shut down Northern Pulp
Hundreds marched from Pictou Landing First Nation to shut down Northern Pulp

In the company’s focus report, a marine survey confirms there are rock crab in the areas of Caribou Harbour where the plant’s diffusers would create a jet of expelled effluent.

It said based on testing and modelling there would be “no significant residual impacts” to marine water quality or on any fisheries or fish habitat as a result of the project.

That included the impact on the lobster population, which is one of the Northumberland Strait’s key fisheries. The report said the outflow pipe’s effect on the fishery would be “generally minor, localized and generally reversible.”

Colton Cameron, a commercial fisherman who fishes out of Caribou Harbour, said he’s not convinced.

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“The reality is we fish heavily exactly where this effluent is going to be released,” said Cameron.

He said a major concern is the poor tidal flushing characteristics of Caribou Harbour. Cameron said a premature leak in the pipeline would see the effluent effectively stuck in the harbour.

“They haven’t done enough tidal studies to see this, but we the fishermen know what the tide does there and it’s going to hold that water in for long periods of time.”

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The company also confirmed that its 15-kilometre pipeline to the strait will be installed “generally parallel” to Highway 106 until it meets its outflow point in Caribou Harbour.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia pulp mill submits focus report to province on effluent proposal

The Transportation Department had previously made it known that it preferred the pipeline be built on a route along secondary roads.

Pictou Mayor Jim Ryan said the town is concerned about the potential threat the overland route poses to groundwater. He said there’s also concern about a treatment facility that will burn sludge producing airborne toxins.

Ryan said he realizes the decision that lies in front of the province is a difficult one given what’s at stake.

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“If there is a solution for the mill I believe it should be one that is able to protect the environment as well as providing that necessary employment,” Ryan said.

Northern Pulp said Tuesday it looks forward to a “positive outcome” to the Environment Department’s review of the company’s focus report.

“Northern Pulp’s proposed industry-leading wastewater treatment facility will significantly reduce our environmental footprint while maintaining well-paying jobs for Nova Scotia,” the company said in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2019.