A sensitive environmental issue is getting some airing in the political arena. That’s good, although it doesn’t guarantee straight answers.
Pictou East MLA Tim Houston, a candidate for the Progressive Conservative leadership, is pushing for a more stringent review process of Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent-treatment system. Considering the pulp mill is in a riding near Houston’s, taking a stand on what’s been a divisive issue is that much more significant.
In a recent letter to Environment Minister Iain Rankin, a copy of which was obtained by CBC News and used as the basis of a news report, Houston called on the Liberal government to require a Class 2 environmental assessment of the project.
He’s certainly not alone in wanting tougher scrutiny. The local support group Friends of the Northumberland Strait has made the same pitch, calling for a Class 2 assessment – as have Pictou County council and P.E.I. Premier Wade MacLauchlan.
The response from the Stephen McNeil government thus far has been reassurances that the Class 1 assessment will be thorough and that any decision will be based on science and the evidence presented.
At issue in which level to set for the environmental review is the corresponding timeline. The Class 2 assessment reportedly could take up to 275 days, more than twice the length of the process the government is requiring. With a deadline of 2020 set for closing the current treatment system at Boat Harbour, time is tight for the green light toward getting a replacement up and running.
The argument by government for the shorter assessment is that the new system would be a replacement of an existing system, rather than an entirely new project.
That view in and of itself invites questions. Perhaps the proposed system isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but there has been plenty of criticism of the Boat Harbour treatment site over the years. In fact, following discovery of a leak in that system in 2014, a blockade next to the pulp mill by members of Pictou Landing First Nation is what pressured government to pledge to close that facility.
Problems in the past would suggest calls for a more critical review of any new system are reasonable.
Add to that continuing observations about the quality of smokestack emissions at the mill since improvements were made in this area. Sometimes air contaminant emissions are found to be at acceptable levels – and sometimes they’re not.
In the current discussion about effluent treatment, a system that will work in theory sounds good. But when the track record in other areas is less than perfect – and repercussions for failing tests are far from onerous – people are bound to be skeptical about any enforcement to meet standards regarding effluent outflow.
Houston in his request to the Environment minister for the tougher assessment says public trust is at stake. He’s right about that.