Nova Scotia’s premier has delayed his decision on the future of the Northern Pulp mill, drawing political fire from opposition leaders who accuse him of running from his responsibilities.
Stephen McNeil was expected to address the situation on Wednesday, but his office issued a short statement saying he would now do so on Friday.
McNeil said in an interview he needs to reflect on whether to give the company more time to complete an environmental assessment or let a legislated deadline stand.
Under provincial legislation, the mill must cease dumping its effluent into lagoons located near the Pictou Landing First Nation by Jan. 31. Northern Pulp has said it will close the mill, which employs more than 300 people, unless the province extends that time frame. The company says the mill supports more than 2,000 additional jobs in the province’s forestry sector.
“I need to weigh all sides of this,” McNeil said of a decision he described as the most difficult he’s had to make in his six years as premier.
“There isn’t one side or another. There’s many facets associated with this whole issue, and I’m going to take the time to really reflect on it all. This is people’s lives.”
Environment Minister Gordon Wilson announced Tuesday he is withholding approval of the mill’s controversial proposal to pump 85 million litres of treated effluent daily into the Northumberland Strait.
Wilson said the province doesn’t have enough information to determine if the project will harm the environment, and the company can’t move forward until it files a full environmental assessment report.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston said the premier appears to have gone into hiding at a critical time for the province. “He owes them some clarity on whether he will honour the Boat Harbour Act,” he said, referring to the provincial legislation that lays out the Jan. 31 deadline.
Pictou Landing Chief Andrea Paul said there is nothing the government can offer the band to win its approval for an extension.
“No, it’s just too scary,” she told a news conference in Dartmouth. “If an extension was brought forward, it would just continue for a long period of time, and then we would be back to where we’ve been.”
She said she hasn’t met with the premier for at least a year, but she believes he will keep his promise to clean up the lagoons at Boat Harbour.
“We’ve had some really good conversations in the past, and he made promises before he was elected that his legacy would be to do right by Pictou Landing First Nation and to end this environmental racism,” she said.
Still, Paul said the First Nation has a contingency plan in place if the government extends the deadline, and she confirmed that plan includes possible legal action.
Houston agreed that the government should not renege on its legislated promise to shut down the Boat Harbour effluent ponds.
“The premier would be just adding his name to a long list of people who have ignored the concerns and ignored what’s right and did what they thought was politically beneficial,” Houston said. “If the premier rips up the Boat Harbour contract in any way, what he’s saying is that his word is useless.”
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the premier’s decision to wait another two days before revealing the province’s position was an act of negligence and incompetence.
“Really? Seriously? After all this time … what have you been doing for the past two years if you need two more days now?” he asked. The NDP leader said if the government amends the act, that would amount to a betrayal of the Pictou Landing First Nation.
The mill’s parent company, Paper Excellence Canada, issued a statement Tuesday saying it wants to continue pumping treated effluent into Boat Harbour. It urged the premier to make a decision “as soon as possible.”
McNeil said there has been no contact with the company or the Pictou Landing First Nation since Wilson announced his decision on Tuesday. He said that while Wilson informed him last weekend that a decision was coming, he wasn’t aware what had been decided.
He said he stayed out of that decision because those opposed to the mill consider him biased.
With files from Michael MacDonald
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