A union-funded study is painting a bleak picture of a decimated Nova Scotia forestry industry and the rapid disappearance of 2,700 jobs if the Northern Pulp paper mill is closed.
“It’s an integrated industry. One closure impacts the entire food chain,” said Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, during a Halifax news conference on Wednesday.
The mill’s parent company, Paper Excellence, is facing a January 2020 deadline under provincial legislation to shut down a treatment facility that sends effluent into the Boat Harbour lagoon near a Mi’kmaq community.
However, the company – which directly employs more than 300 people at the Pictou County plant – says it may close if its plan to treat and pipe 85 million litres of effluent daily into the Northumberland Strait isn’t approved.
“We have to be environmentally responsible, but we have to understand the impact of losing these incredible jobs in this most important sector of the economy,” said Dias, whose union represents about 230 of the workers.
In March, the provincial Liberal government told the company to provide more information before it can provide environmental approvals, including information on the potential impact on fish mortality in the Strait.
Raymond Plourde, wilderness co-ordinator with the Ecology Action Centre, said the economic pain of a mill shutdown has to be weighed against the risks to the fisheries, tourism and the environment of sending the effluent into the strait.
“They are shoving their preferred solution down the throats of all other Nova Scotians,” said Plourde, who represents the province’s largest environmental group. “They gloss over the environmental impacts … They are putting one industry up on a pedestal and saying this is the only thing that’s important.”
He said dumping effluent in the strait “puts 3,000 fisheries jobs at risk.”
Still, Dias argued it’s time for the province to proceed with the pipeline, saying the effluent treatment plant will solve the pollution problem – and the alternative is an industry that may never fully recover in the province.
“The solution is to get the shovels in the ground immediately to start to build the (effluent) water treatment centre. This is the solution right across Canada … This is technology that works,” he said.
The study by Gardner Pinfold Consulting commissioned by Unifor estimates the mill spends $279 million annually, most of it in rural, high unemployment areas of the province, and that a supply chain of 1,379 companies supports its operation.
It estimates that workers earn about $128 million a year in income and that $38.4 million in tax revenues are being generated.
The consultant says if Northern Pulp closes it will cripple sawmills, forestry contractors and private woodlot owners who are closely tied into the Abercrombie Point pulp mill’s operations.
The mill buys large amounts of wood chips and sawdust from the sawmills, using it to produce pulp that is exported and turned into tissue, towel and toilet paper.
Consultant Bob Fraser said his firm’s study shows the closure of Northern Pulp would lead to the “shut down of several sawmills that are highly dependent on the mill.”
“These impacts would persist for several years and the long-run economic impacts are uncertain,” says the document.
Premier Stephen McNeil has repeatedly said his government can’t change the deadline to end the flow Northern Pulp effluent into the Boat Harbour lagoon.
However, during a scrum in late July, McNeil also has said, “I’m committed to cleaning up Boat Harbour. At the same time, if we have a project that can get an environmental permit, that is sustainable, that allows that company and the sector to continue to operate in this province, then I have a responsibility to look at that.”
The commitment to end the discharge was made to the Pictou Landing First Nation, and the deadline enshrined in legislation.
However, the Unifor officials argued during the Wednesday news conference that it believes the province could be flexible on some required studies on fish mortality, as they cannot be completed by the provincial deadline.
Dias said time is running out, and the simple solution is to allow the company to get to work on the pipeline and the treatment facility to meet the January deadline.
The federal government has already pledged to spend $100 million to help clean up the Boat Harbour effluent lagoons – long considered one of Nova Scotia’s most polluted sites.
The sprawling lagoons are contaminated with millions of litres of treated waste water pumped into the area by Northern Pulp over the decades.
Before the mill was built in the late 1960s, Boat Harbour was used for recreation and harvesting food. The local Indigenous community also gathered ceremonial and medicinal plants from the saltwater habitat.
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