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OP-ED: Protection for the pulp mill – and not the people?

By Joan Baxter

Their message is simple: “#nopipe.” Fishers from the Pictou Landing First Nation and fishermen’s groups representing about 3,000 harvesters in the Maritimes say they will not accept the proposed plan by the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou to pump up to 85 million litres of treated effluent a day through a 10-kilometre-long pipe directly into the Northumberland Strait.

They say they have reached an impasse and will no longer meet with the mill unless it comes up with an alternative to the pipe. Fishing families tell me they do not want anyone to lose their jobs at the mill, but they don’t want to lose their livelihoods either. One fisherman said that if they even try to put in such a pipe, there will be 400 fishing boats out there and “they’ll have to have the navy” out.

One might have thought this would greatly concern the provincial government. That after a half century of kowtowing and handouts to the large foreign corporations that have owned the Pictou pulp mill, the government would have learned its lesson and be doing everything possible to avoid repeating past mistakes, make sure that this time, environmental protection is its priority.

Apparently not.

A couple of weeks ago, Frances Martin, Nova Scotia’s Deputy Minister of the Environment, sat in front of the Public Accounts Committee and, for two hours, tried to justify the government’s decision to fast-track the environmental assessment for Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent treatment and disposal system.

She maintained that the Class 1 Environmental Assessment process, which takes only 50 days, is “an appropriate level of regulatory oversight” for a project to pipe pulp effluent into a lucrative fishing ground for lobster, herring, scallops, mackerel and rock crab.

The project does not warrant the more extensive, 275-day Class 2 Assessment, she argued, because although it is “new” it is just a “modification” on an existing plant. Not to worry because the shorter assessment is “no less rigorous” than the longer one.

What wasn’t discussed at the Public Accounts committee meeting was the cost of the new facility, who would be paying for it, and whether answers to these questions might explain why the government seems so intent on fast-tracking the process so that the new treatment system can be up and running in 2019, giving Northern Pulp time to phase out the use of Boat Harbour for its effluent by the legislated deadline of January 2020.

But these questions were very much on the minds of MLAs from P.E.I.’s Standing Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries when they had a chance to interrogate a delegation from Northern Pulp. One wanted to know who would be paying for the new treatment system and be responsible for “any future compensation claims.” Guy Martin, the lead engineer for the project, said this hadn’t been determined yet.

This is where things get interesting for Northern Pulp, and potentially very expensive for the people of Nova Scotia. Although neither the government nor Northern Pulp seems keen to draw attention to it, an Indemnity Agreement signed in 1995 by then Minister of Supply and Services, Gerald O’Malley, put Nova Scotians on the hook for the cost of treating and disposing of the mill’s effluent, forever. It is “intended to provide the broadest possible indemnity to the Indemnified Parties,” who shall be held “harmless” from any claims and expenses arising out of the effluent treatment system.

This means the government is the regulator responsible for approving a treatment system that it may also have to pay for.

At this point, no one seems to know how much it will all cost. We do know that Nova Scotians will be paying for the remediation of Boat Harbour, pegged now at $133 million. There are also studies, a new effluent system that early estimates put at $100 million, and a $70 million delignification system. In addition, mill manager Bruce Chapman told the Chronicle Herald that the province will be “pressed” for compensation by Northern Pulp (part of the Paper Excellence Group, linked to the billionaire Widjaja family of Indonesia), because Premier John Hamm’s government gave the mill a lease to use Boat Harbour for its effluent until 2030.

When the Northern Pulp delegation from the mill was grilled at the legislature in P.E.I., MLA Peter Bevan-Baker asked what incentive it had to produce clean effluent when “the public purse is going to have to pick up the cost of that.”

Chapman replied that the incentive was to be a “good corporate citizen.”

It’s never too late to start. And the fishermen’s groups are waiting.

Joan Baxter is a Nova Scotian journalist and award-winning author. Her latest book is “The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.”

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