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Security guards the entrance to the construction site of the new EV battery plant, Northvolt, in Saint-Basile-le-Grand, east of Montreal, on Jan. 19.Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press

The Superior Court of Quebec has rejected a petition from a Quebec-based environmental group that sought to stop work at the site of Swedish battery maker Northvolt AB’s planned $7-billion plant near Montreal.

The Quebec Environmental Law Centre asked the court for a temporary injunction to stop work at the site in Saint-Basile-le-Grand, just east of Montreal.

It argued that approvals given by Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette and the municipality of Saint-Basile-le-Grand to destroy wetlands and cut down trees were unreasonable and would lead to irreversible damage to local ecosystems.

But Justice David R. Collier rejected the petition in a 13-page decision issued Friday, ruling that the centre’s arguments did not meet the legal standard required to grant a temporary injunction and saying the authorizations seemed reasonable at first glance.

“If there is a public interest in protecting the environment, there is also a public interest in protecting the legal certainty of activities authorized by the public administration,” Justice Collier wrote.

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. The project is the largest-ever private investment in Quebec.

Lawyers for the Quebec government, the municipality and Northvolt defended the validity of permits during a hearing on Wednesday and underscored the importance of the project for the transition to a green economy.

Northvolt and the Quebec government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Saint-Basile-le-Grand mayor Yves Lessard said he was satisfied with the ruling Friday. “It confirms that we are doing things correctly” with respect to environmental legislation, he said.

While the application for a temporary injunction was rejected, the Quebec Environmental Law Centre’s lawsuit challenging the permits will continue.

The Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke, a First Nation community near Montreal, filed a separate lawsuit challenging the project earlier this week.

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.

Work started on Jan. 15, according to Justice Collier’s decision, and stopped three days later in light of the injunction application.

Jessica Leblanc, a lawyer representing the Quebec Environmental Law Centre, said in court that Saint-Basile-le-Grand’s authorization to remove trees breached a bylaw aimed at protecting natural spaces in the Greater Montreal area.

But Justice Collier said the municipality’s interpretation exempting the targeted areas from the bylaw did not seem unreasonable and rejected this argument.

In its lawsuit, the centre also said the minister’s decision was unreasonable because it 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 same site a few months earlier because of its impact on wetlands and a bird species deemed vulnerable in Quebec, the least bittern.

Some of these arguments, Justice Collier noted, were abandoned during the hearing because of documents the centre had not had access to when it first filed its motion.

These documents demonstrated that the minister took into account the situation of at-risk species found on the Northvolt site, including birds, bats and turtles. They also showed details of what mitigation and compensation measures were agreed upon between the company and the minister before granting his authorization.

At the hearing, Ms. Leblanc nonetheless maintained that these conditions were not sufficiently precise and binding. Justice Collier rejected this argument, saying the minister exercised his discretion by presenting conservation options to Northvolt, which also paid $4.7-million in compensation.

Regarding the project denied on the same site earlier, Justice Collier accepted the Quebec government’s position that the minister was not bound by previous decisions and that Northvolt’s factory would have a lesser impact on the least bittern.

In concluding remarks, Justice Collier acknowledged that the destruction of wetlands to make way for the factory means “there will be loss of a natural environment that is both rare and important for the environment of the region.” But the judge again underscored Northvolt’s commitment to restore or preserve ecosystems elsewhere and plant 24,000 trees, nearly three times as many as will be cut down.

Marc Bishai, a lawyer for the Quebec Environmental Law Centre, said Friday that his organization’s team would review the decision and decide whether they will ask for an interlocutory injunction, which could again stop work on the site before the case is decided on its merits.

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