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Canada Nova Scotia pulp mill owners say environmental assessment requirements put company’s operations in jeopardy

The Northern Pulp mill in Pictou, N.S. is pictured on Dec. 6, 2018.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

A Nova Scotia pulp mill rushing for government permission to begin construction on a controversial pipeline project that will discharge wastewater into the Northumberland Strait was sent back to the drawing board Friday.

Despite a looming deadline that Northern Pulp’s owners say threatens the future of its operations in Pictou, N.S., Environment Minister Margaret Miller said the company must complete an additional “focus report” to address nearly 20 points of concern before it can move forward.

The concerns were raised during Ms. Miller’s review of the company’s environmental assessment report on the proposed pipeline, which the company says is necessary to allow it to meet a provincial law that requires the mill to cease discharging wastewater onto Indigenous lands by January, 2020.

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“I did not take this decision lightly,” said Ms. Miller, who personally reviewed 1,700 pages of evidence and more than 900 public submissions related to the pipeline. “It was very clear that in the end, there only was one decision to make … based on science and the best available evidence. In this case, I am sure there is not yet enough information.”

She added: “My job is to protect the environment of Nova Scotia the best way we know how.”

Brian Baarda, chief executive of Paper Excellence Canada, the mill’s parent company, said the minister’s decision will put the company further behind schedule an additional six to nine months. Northern Pulp cannot begin construction on a new wastewater-treatment facility until the province approves its environmental assessment. That means it is unlikely, Mr. Baarda said, that a new wastewater-treatment facility could be built and commissioned before the summer of 2021.

The Boat Harbour Act was enacted in 2015 to put an end to the mill’s use of a longstanding wastewater facility built in the 1960s on the traditional fishing grounds of the Pictou Landing First Nation. It requires the mill to stop dumping there more than a year earlier, in January, 2020.

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., on July 6, 2018.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The minister’s decision “puts the mill at risk,” Mr. Baarda said, adding it is not feasible to shutter the mill temporarily to meet the 2020 deadline and restart it once a new wastewater facility is complete. Whether the company will choose to permanently shutter the facility remains an open question, he said.

“We’ll think about that. We’ll have to evaluate our options,” he said, noting the need for “discussions” with the province.

Asked on Friday whether he will consider amending the deadline in the Boat Harbour Act, Premier Stephen McNeil said, “At this point, there is no reason for me to even consider that.”

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He encouraged Northern Pulp “to focus on whether or not it can actually meet the environmental standards of the province. At this point, they have not,” he said. “We gave five years. This company needs to do the work.”

Among the information the Environment Minister has asked Northern Pulp to provide is more science on the chemical composition of the wastewater that will be discharged into the Strait, clarity on how the pipe in the Strait might be impacted by ice in the winter and details on how pipeline leaks will be detected. Ms. Miller also asked for more information on how the wastewater could affect fish and marine life, including lobster.

Some of the company’s research was stalled last fall when fishermen set up blockades to prevent surveyors from doing work in Pictou-area waters. Northern Pulp ultimately obtained a court injunction to try to complete the necessary survey work.

Still, uncertainty over the future of the mill continues to divide Pictou and its surrounding communities. Families have been split by competing worries over the future of both the fishing industry and the forestry sector. While the mill only employs about 300 people, more than 10,000 people work in forestry-related businesses whose vitality is heavily dependent on the mill.

Friday’s decision has people across Nova Scotia “very, very stressed out,” said Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston, who is also the MLA for Pictou East.

“I’m concerned for all those people across the province that are just hanging on the future of this mill,” he said.

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