Nova Scotia’s environment minister is withholding approval of a pulp mill’s controversial proposal to pump 85 million litres of treated effluent daily into the Northumberland Strait, a decision that leaves the fate of thousands of forestry industry jobs in limbo.
Gordon Wilson says the province doesn’t have enough information to determine if Northern Pulp‘s project will harm the environment, and the company can’t move forward until it files a full environmental assessment report.
READ MORE: Decision on Northern Pulp to come Tuesday as Ottawa passes on impact assessment
The minister said the new information is required to properly assess the company’s plans for a new effluent treatment plant and a 15-kilometre pipeline near Pictou, N.S., which have met with stiff opposition from the Pictou Landing First Nation, environmental groups and fishermen from across the Maritimes.
“While there has been some good work done here, I have concluded that I need more science-based evidence, more information before me to properly assess the potential risks to air, water, fish and human health,” Wilson told a news conference Wednesday.
“I am aware of the implications this could have on people’s lives and livelihoods … (But) I can’t approve this project unless and until I feel confident that the science behind it supports it.”
The mill, which directly employs 300 people, supports more than 2,000 additional jobs in the province’s forestry sector, the company says. Unifor, which represents more than 200 workers at the mill, says the operation supports about 11,000 jobs across all sectors in the province.
Friends of the Northumberland Strait, a coalition opposed to the pipeline, said in a news release it is “relieved and pleased” the plan was not approved, noting the company had five years to prepare its submissions.
“The minister … recognized that Northern Pulp has not provided the science to show that this project can be built and operated without significant harm,” said James Gunvaldsen Klaassen, a lawyer with Ecojustice, which is part of the group.
It remains unclear what will happen to the mill, because it is facing a legislated deadline to stop dumping its effluent into lagoons at Boat Harbour near Pictou Landing by Jan. 31. The company has said it will close the mill unless the provincial government grants an extension to that deadline.
The CEO of Northern Pulp’s parent company, Paper Excellence Canada, released a statement shortly after Wilson’s decision was released.
“We are disappointed in the Government of Nova Scotia’s decision,” Brian Baarda wrote.
“Until we have a decision on the extension of the Boat Harbour Act, the future of Northern Pulp and Nova Scotia’s Forestry Sector remain in jeopardy.”
The company urged the province to provide a decision on its application to extend the company’s use of the lagoons as soon as possible.
Baarda said the company would have no further comment until a decision is reached.
READ MORE: Nova Scotia communities await decision on contentious pulp mill pipeline proposal
Jamie Simpson, a lawyer who represents three fishermen’s groups, said in an interview the “elephant in the room” is whether the province will amend the legislation and allow Northern Pulp to keep pumping effluent into Boat Harbour.
Wilson declined to speculate on the possibility of an extension, saying the issue wasn’t within his purview.
“My complete focus has been on this environmental assessment application from the very start,” he said. “The Boat Harbour Act is not really in my jurisdiction … I’m not going to speculate on something that is outside my responsibilities.”
Wilson also declined to say what he would do if Northern Pulp continued to dump treated effluent into Boat Harbour after Jan. 31, in violation of the act.
The Environment Department has up to 14 days to give Northern Pulp the final terms of reference for the environmental assessment, and the company has up to two years to submit the report. After that, study of the document can take up to 285 days.
With files from Alexander Quon
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2019.