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Wood harvester Wade Prest says a company shutdown would hurt, but it doesn’t reflect the whole story.

The Canadian Press

For wood harvester Wade Prest, predictions of devastation if Nova Scotia’s largest pulp mill closes are missing a wider story of an industry that needs to rethink its future.

“There is a time when you do have to bite the bullet and say, ‘This is an opportunity for us to change,“’ the 62-year-old wood harvester said in a telephone interview.

The deadline is ticking down for the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou County to stop sending effluent into a lagoon near a Mi’kmaq community.

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If it fails to win approval for a pipeline that would instead dump 85 million litres daily into the Northumberland Strait, the plant could close.

However, Prest says that could mean a more “ecological” approach on his family forest near Mooseland, N.S., 115 kilometres east of Halifax.

According to a union-sponsored study published last week, the economic fallout would be massive for the province’s rural areas should the multinational depart.

Close to 2,700 jobs would be lost, including Unifor’s 220 unionized employees at Northern Pulp, the study concluded. Three of Nova Scotia’s five largest sawmills would close virtually overnight, and “many woodlots would not be harvested, and prices would drop for those that are,” the Gardner Pinfold analysis warned.

Nova Scotia’s Liberal government can avoid this if it permits the Paper Excellence subsidiary to get “shovels in the ground” to build an effluent treatment plant and pipeline, union president Jerry Dias said.

Meanwhile, the countdown continues to a Jan. 31, 2020 deadline to end what a provincial Liberal environment minister once referred to as a clear case of “environmental racism.”

That’s when provincial legislation requires an end to over five decades of effluent spilling into the Boat Harbour lagoon near Pictou Landing First Nation.

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The mill has said it is attempting to provide further environmental studies demanded by the province but doubts it can meet the deadline due to the additional information needed.

Fishing boats pass the Northern Pulp mill as concerned residents, fishermen and Indigenous groups protest the mill's plan to dump millions of litres of effluent daily into the Northumberland Strait in Pictou, N.S., in a July 6, 2018, file photo.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Prest says a company shutdown would hurt, but it doesn’t reflect the whole story.

“I don’t want to belittle the significance of the change,” he said. “But we have an opportunity to change this industry into something that’s sustainable into the future for our children and grandchildren.”

He argues that over the past three decades the industry has focused on cutting logs for sawmills that could turn a high percentage into wood chips sold to the pulp factories.

He says that meant smaller trees were cut and the return per tonne was less for his company and other contractors.

The veteran woodsman points to repeated provincial studies that have cautioned Nova Scotia’s Acadian forest is under too much pressure and that a tendency to cut younger trees isn’t sustainable.

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Last August, William Lahey’s “Independent Review of Forest Practices in Nova Scotia” said the province’s forests are under stress and harvesting practices “have left a legacy of impoverished forests.”

The report prepared for the Liberal government said: “Substantial changes are needed in forest practices if further degradation is to be avoided and restoration pursued.”

Tom Miller, a woodlot owner with about 200 hectares in Pictou County, says private contractors like him are already struggling to survive because of low prices for wood.

He and Prest say the $38 per metric tonne for softwood pulpwood and $75 for spruce logs for local sawmills “have been essentially flat for 20 or more years.”

“Unless you have a big machine and want to cut everything in sight, you’re out of luck in terms of return on investment, in my view,” Miller said in an interview.

“I’m ready for a change .... Every one of us (harvesters) is working for a Third World wage, just hanging on by a thread.”

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Both harvesters also say that if Northern Pulp were to close, there would still be a pulp mill in Port Hawkesbury, N.S., and there are international and other markets for the wood chips and sawdust produced by sawmills.

However, in the Gardner Pinfold report, the authors say the sawmills receive a far better return for the wood chips from Northern Pulp.

“A combination of low value and higher shipping costs render most alternative markets unfeasible for sawmill wood chip sales,” it concludes.

It says over half of the harvest from Nova Scotia’s private woodlots are currently destined for the pulp market, and without this, many woodlots “would not be harvested, and the prices would drop for those that are.”

A spokesperson for Northern Pulp was unavailable for comment.

Meanwhile, Premier Stephen McNeil has responded to the union’s study by saying he doesn’t intend to skip an environmental review to keep the mill open.

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“We need to have something that actually has (an environmental) permit,” he said. “We made it clear to the company that they need to continue to do the work, and work with the regulator, to see if there’s a way for them to be able to treat the effluent before it’s discharged.”

He acknowledged the jobs at stake are important to rural communities. “But this is not 1960. We need to treat the effluent coming out of this facility,” he said.

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