A leadership candidate for Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservatives says he believes the provincial Environment Department made a judgment call that has failed to instil public confidence in its environmental assessment process for a proposed effluent treatment plan for the Northern Pulp mill.
Tim Houston made the comment while questioning deputy environment minister Frances Martin, who appeared Wednesday before the legislature's public accounts committee.
Houston, whose Pictou East riding neighbours the pulp mill, equated the decision to go with a Class 1 assessment with a similar decision for the Alton Gas natural gas storage project near Stewiacke, which has been through the courts and has been subject to protests from environmentalists and local Mi'kmaq bands.
“Alton gas – 12 years after they did everything the department asked them to do – they haven't started,” said Houston. “I'm worried the department is walking Northern Pulp down the same fate as Alton Gas.”
Under provincial legislation, Northern Pulp has until 2020 to replace its current effluent treatment plant in Boat Harbour near Pictou – a deadline the company has said will be tight to meet.
The mill, across the Northumberland Strait from eastern Prince Edward Island, announced plans for a new treatment plant in December and is to submit an environmental assessment to Nova Scotia's Environment Department sometime in July.
According to the company's plan, waste would be treated at a new facility near the mill using a system that would meet all federal environmental standards for suspended solids and oxygen depletion.
The effluent would be carried by polyethylene pipe across Pictou Harbour and released through six dispersal pipes into the strait.
Martin told the committee she made the decision to go with a Class 1 environmental assessment last June 1 after Northern Pulp filed a project description with the department at the end of April.
She said it was clear to her the project required a Class 1 assessment instead of the more-lengthy Class 2 under provincial regulations. Martin said Class 2 assessments are used in cases of larger projects, such as the building of a petro-chemical plant or pulp mill.
“It was very clear in looking in the documentation and the Act and the regulations that it was a Class 1. It wasn't the construction of a mill it was a modification to an existing mill.”
But Houston persisted with his questioning, asking if Martin could confirm that a boardwalk project at the Northumberland Fisheries Museum required a Class 2 assessment.
Martin was unable to provide the answer to the committee, but the department later said in an email that “our environmental assessment branch isn't aware of this project, as it has never been registered for an environmental assessment.”
Martin said the Class 1 assessment would be rigorous and would give the public and experts ample opportunity to provide input before a final decision is made.
Local fishermen, Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq chiefs, and Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan are among those who have voiced concerns about Northern Pulp's plan, saying it could have unintended consequences for fisheries in the area.
Last month, MacLauchlan wrote a letter to Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and to federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna in which he called for a more comprehensive assessment.
Martin told NDP committee member Dave Wilson that P.E.I. residents would have opportunity to give their written input during the 30-day consultation process. She also said her department would seek input from the federal departments of environment and fisheries, adding that meetings have already occurred with federal officials.
Wilson asked whether there had been any indications that Ottawa would step in with an environmental assessment of its own.
“We don't anticipate that the federal government will conduct an environmental assessment on the effluent treatment,” Martin said.
Outside the hearing, Martin told reporters the meeting with regional federal officials happened before MacLauchlan's letter was sent, but she added she wasn't aware of any change in the federal stance since.
Joan Baxter, author of a recent book that explored the impact of the mill, said she heard “a lot of semantics” in Martin's defence of the government's assessment process.
Baxter said she and many members of the public don't buy that a Class 1 assessment is as stringent as a Class 2.
She said at the very least there should be public hearings on the project, adding she doesn't believe what's currently in place is transparent enough.
Baxter feels the public has lost trust with the process.
“People have commented a lot in this province about that pulp mill over the last 50 years and they've never been heard,” she said. “And they don't feel that even if they do comment during that 30-day process that their voices will be heard.”