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Key decision on fate of Nova Scotia’s Northern Pulp mill could come any day

Fishing boats pass the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou, N.S., on Friday, July 6, 2018.
Fishing boats pass the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou, N.S., on Friday, July 6, 2018. The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan

The Nova Scotia government could make a key decision as early as Friday regarding the fate of a pulp mill and the thousands of forest industry jobs it supports.

The province’s environment minister has until Tuesday to decide whether to approve Northern Pulp‘s proposal for a new wastewater facility that would pump millions of litres of treated effluent directly into the Northumberland Strait.

However, Gordon Wilson made it clear Thursday that decision could be revealed earlier than next week.

“I will share that decision on or before (Tuesday),” he said before declining to indicate whether he had already made up his mind.

The company’s pipeline proposal has met with stiff resistance from First Nations and fishermen, who say the treated waste could harm the lucrative lobster and herring industries in the strait.

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READ MORE: Nova Scotia pulp mill’s effluent focus report lacks detail, say federal departments

Northern Pulp has said the treated effluent will meet federal regulations for emissions.

Wilson confirmed Friday he has read all 3,000 public submissions regarding the controversial project.

While it’s true that more than 2,500 jobs hang in the balance, Wilson said his decision will include other factors.

“The primary role of a regulator is to ensure that any decision that I make is based on science and best evidence,” he said after a cabinet meeting Thursday. “Certainly, there are other factors.”

Wilson has three options before him: reject the pipeline proposal outright, accept it with conditions, or ask for further information.

Premier Stephen McNeil said the fate of the mill near Pictou in northern Nova Scotia was the most important issue facing the province this year.

But he gave no indication where his Liberal government is leaning.

“The minister has a role and responsibility as regulator and I look forward to hearing from him,” McNeil said.

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However, even if Wilson approves the project, Northern Pulp won’t have enough time to build the facility before another deadline arrives.

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Under provincial legislation passed in 2015, the mill must stop dumping effluent into lagoons near the Pictou Landing First Nation as of Jan. 31 – though there is speculation the province may extend that deadline to keep the mill open.

Again, the premier had nothing to say when asked about that option.

In the past, McNeil has said he intends to stick with the original deadline, given the fact that Northern Pulp has had five years to shut down the lagoons at Boat Harbour.

The Boat Harbour Act was drafted after a serious effluent spill at the Pictou Landing First Nation in June 2014.

“Nothing has changed,” McNeil said Thursday. “I look forward to hearing from the regulator.”

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

The premier said the province has completed its due diligence and it would be inappropriate for him to interfere with the regulatory process at this point.

“I met with everyone. I met with woodlot owners. I met with the mill. I met with (Pictou Landing) Chief Andrea Paul before it went to the regulator,” he said. “I’m going to respect the process.”

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Opposition Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston said the government has made a huge mistake by leaving everything to the last minute.

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“We have thousands of people across this province who are having sleepless nights and are on the edge of their seats, not knowing what is going to happen,” he said. “This was very predictable five years ago.”

Houston said he couldn’t offer an opinion on what should happen with the mill’s wastewater proposal because the opposition parties don’t have access to the information the company has shared with the governing Liberals.

However, Houston drew attention to the fact that five federal departments raised concerns about the project last month.

The departments, including Health Canada and Environment Canada, were critical of the company’s latest proposal in a so-called focus report, saying it lacked necessary information.

Federal officials also said the province’s 36-day comment period did not provide enough time for a detailed analysis of the 2,000-page report.

READ MORE: End of Northern Pulp not viewed as a disaster by some N.S. woodlot owners

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the premier is now avoiding making a commitment to uphold the Boat Harbour deadline.

“It is contemptuous of the government to evade and dodge this question,” he said.

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The owners of the mill, which employs about 300 people, have said the operation will be forced to shut down unless the province extends the Jan. 31 deadline.

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Northern Pulp officials have said they need another year to get the job done.

The company says another 2,040 jobs depend on the mill.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 12, 2019.