Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has sided against a pulp mill’s plea for a lifeline in a move that has bitterly split his province, earning praise from environmental, fisheries and Indigenous groups, but angering many in the province’s forestry sector.
The Northern Pulp mill in Pictou had been asking for an extension on a provincially imposed deadline to stop dumping contaminated wastewater in Boat Harbour, next to the Pictou Landing First Nation, in what many have called one of the province’s worst examples of pollution linked to racism.
As a result, the mill – one of the largest operators in the province – is now set to close at the end of January. The company’s owners say that will mean the elimination of 300 jobs at the mill and an estimated 2,400 more in the forestry sector.
Mr. McNeill, who also pledged $50-million to help affected forestry workers make that transition to new jobs, said his hand was forced by a company that appeared to be unwilling to modernize the mill’s effluent-treatment facility. Concerns about the mill’s wastewater, contaminated with toxic heavy metals, were first raised in the 1960s.
The Premier told the company in 2015 that it had five years to fix the problem. The mill’s owners have showed that they did not take that deadline seriously, he said.
“The company has had five years and any number of opportunities to get out of Boat Harbour, and at this point, we’re nowhere close to that,” the Premier said Friday. “Northern Pulp has had a number of chances to get this right. And yet, here we are.”
The decision was applauded by the Pictou Landing First Nation, which for years has been calling for an end to the mill’s effluent dumping into Boat Harbour, a heavily polluted lagoon that is adjacent to the reserve. First Nation leaders say the pollution in Boat Harbour – historically used for fishing, clam digging and hunting – was causing chronic illness and compromised their access to traditional food sources.
“Premier Stephen McNeil had a very difficult decision to make today, a decision that will affect many people in our region, but I feel he made the correct decision,“ Pictou Landing Chief Andrea Paul said. “I am grateful that he has decided to put an end to the pollution and providing an opportunity for us to heal.”
“Cleaning up Boat Harbour is all my people have ever wanted and Premier Stephen McNeil kept his promise and, on behalf of my community, we are thankful.”
However, not everyone was celebrating the Premier’s announcement. Those in the province’s forestry sector said it was a dark day that would hurt family-run sawmills, kill thousands of jobs and scare off investment in Nova Scotia.
“We’re very disappointed,” said Jeff Bishop, executive director of Forest Nova Scotia, an industry association. “This is a decision that will be felt across the province, from one end to the other, but most predominantly in rural Nova Scotia, where people are already suffering. It’s yet another blow to one of the few remaining areas where people can work in rural communities.”
The $50-million for laid-off forestry workers pledged by the Premier is a “drop in the bucket” compared with the $20-billion in economic activity the sector brings to Nova Scotia, Mr. Bishop said. Northern Pulp bought woodchips from nearly every sawmill in the province, so there are few in the industry who will not be affected, he said.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, said Northern Pulp had multiple chances to deal with the effluent issue in a way that met government requirements.
“Premier McNeil made a courageous decision,” said James Gunvaldsen Klaassen of Ecojustice. “He did the right thing for Pictou Landing First Nation, for the vulnerable environment of the Northumberland Strait and those who make their living from it.”
Jill Graham-Scanlan, president of Friends of the Northumberland Strait, said the Premier was correcting an “injustice” that had dragged on against the people of Pictou Landing First Nation for five decades, and said the job losses lie at the feet of Northern Pulp’s owners.
“While we rejoice at this decision, our sympathy is with those who face job loss and unknown changes in their industry,” she said.
A spokesperson for the federal Employment Ministry said that the government has already reached out to the province to offer assistance to displaced workers.
"We know that today’s decision by the Government of Nova Scotia and the closure of this mill will have a very real impact on workers in Nova Scotia and the Atlantic region, especially during this holiday season – and we are thinking of them and their families at this difficult time," Ashley Michnowski said.