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A Quebec environmental group argued in court that work on Swedish manufacturer Northvolt's future electric vehicle battery plant was allowed to begin without proper analysis of the impact on the area's biodiversity.Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press

Lawyers for the Quebec Environmental Law Centre (CQDE) argued in court Wednesday that approvals given by the Quebec Minister of the Environment and the municipality of Saint-Basile-le-Grand to destroy wetlands and cut trees on the site were unreasonable and illegal.

The CQDE is asking for a temporary injunction to stop work for 10 days, which could be renewed, and for the Environment Ministry to re-examine its decision. Quebec Superior Court Justice David R. Collier last week already ordered Northvolt to not cut down any trees in or within 500 metres of wetlands until Wednesday’s hearing.

Nathalie-Anne Béliveau, a lawyer acting for Northvolt, said this delay “could be fatal” to her client and argued for the injunction to be rejected on technical grounds. She underscored the importance of the project, which is being financed with provincial and federal funding, for the transition to a green economy and its potential for creating thousands of jobs.

Justice Collier said after the hearings Wednesday that he would issue a decision as soon as possible.

Separately, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke, a First Nation community on the south shore of Montreal, announced Tuesday that it filed a lawsuit to “demand orders requiring the provincial and federal governments to engage in consultation” regarding the project. The council said in a news release that “Quebec and Canada have breached the duty to consult” when funding the project and authorizing the destruction of wetlands.

Amélie Moffet, a spokesperson for Quebec Minister of the Environment Benoit Charette, acknowledged that “discussions have taken place in recent weeks between government representatives and the community of Kahnawake on this issue,” but declined to make additional comments, as the case is before the courts.

Neither Northvolt nor the federal government answered requests for comment on the council’s suit.

Quebec and Ottawa announced this past fall that billions of dollars had been earmarked to finance the Swedish battery-maker’s factory – $4.4-billion from the federal government and $2.9-billion from the province, its largest private investment ever.

On Jan. 8, Mr. Charette authorized the company to destroy about 14 hectares of wetlands on a 170-hectare site straddling the communities of McMasterville and Saint-Basile-le-Grand, about 25 kilometres east of Montreal. On Jan. 12, Saint-Basile-le-Grand delivered a permit to cut down trees.

Jessica Leblanc, a lawyer representing the CQDE, said in court Wednesday that the municipality’s authorization to remove trees breached a bylaw aimed at protecting wetlands and other natural spaces in the Greater Montreal area.

Simon Vincent, a lawyer for Saint-Basile-le-Grand, argued that the wetlands where the municipality issued the authorization to cut down trees were exempt from the protections offered by the bylaw.

In its lawsuit filed with three residents of the host towns, the CQDE also said the minister’s decision was unreasonable because it was not sufficiently motivated, did not include conditions to compensate for the environmental losses incurred by the project, and did not address the threatened and vulnerable species found on the site. Moreover, the minister had refused to authorize another project on the site a few months earlier because of its impact on wetlands and a bird species deemed vulnerable in Quebec, the least bittern.

Ms. Leblanc argued that, by letting Northvolt prepare a conservation plan that mitigates the effects of its project to be submitted up to 36 months after the authorization was granted, the minister was not exercising his legal discretionary power and was instead deferring it to a later date, long after wetlands and at-risk species habitats would be destroyed.

Stéphanie Garon, a lawyer for the Quebec government, countered that the company had agreed to strict conditions which the government could enforce if they were not met. The minister “enjoys broad discretionary power” in authorizing such projects, Ms. Garon added, and followed a thorough process involving negotiations with Northvolt on appropriate mitigation measures. Suspending the authorization, she said, would harm the public interest given the economic importance of the project.

Ms. Garon said the project was fundamentally different from the previous project, a residential and commercial development submitted by a firm called MC2 that was not authorized, in that Northvolt’s factory won’t impact the least bittern as much. In any case, she argued, the minister’s discretionary power means he is not bound by his previous decisions.

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