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VIBERT: Forest sector will fight for Northern Pulp

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

The battle lines are drawn, but the battle is not yet joined.

When Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil conceded in year-end interviews that the future of Northern Pulp’s Pictou County mill is very much in doubt, his words didn’t surprise the province’s forestry sector, but they still sent a shiver down its collective spine.

The same concession gladdened the hearts of the mill’s long list of detractors, who clearly have the upper hand at the moment, but again, the battle is not yet joined.

The province’s politically potent forestry sector won’t sit idly by and allow that mill to close.

Northern Pulp is expected to submit its plan for a new effluent treatment system — replacing the infamous Boat Harbour facility — to the provincial Environment Department for assessment by the end of this month.

If the plan is approved, the company still faces an impossible deadline to get the new treatment system up and running before Boat Harbour is shut down — by law — at the end of January 2020.

Industry insiders estimate Northern Pulp will need, at minimum, an additional 18 months beyond the deadline to complete the new treatment system. That would require the province to extend the deadline it enshrined in law in 2015.

Premier McNeil has been adamant that won’t happen, and Boat Harbour will shut down on schedule in just over a year. With no way to treat its effluent, Northern Pulp would have to cease operations and, the same industry insiders say, if it shuts down at all, it will almost certainly be for good.

To survive then, Northern Pulp needs both a favourable environmental assessment from the province and an extension of the deadline to shut down Boat Harbour, also from the province.

The environmental assessment is supposed to be beyond the reach of politics. The science decides and those in a position to know say Northern Pulp has done its homework and will submit a state-of-the-art treatment plan.

But, given that that plan includes pumping treated effluent into the Northumberland Strait for dispersal, a positive assessment would be incredibly unpopular with fishermen and, it would seem, with most folks who live on or near the Northumberland shore.

It could also be moot, absent a decision to extend the life of Boat Harbour.

Unlike the assessment of the new treatment plan, the Boat Harbour deadline is a purely political decision. The provincial government established it in law and the province can extend it by amending the same law.

If it comes down to that, the pressure on the province to do so and save the mill will be intense. Liberal MLAs will hear from saw mill operators, woodlot owners and the men and women who earn a living in both.

In Halifax, the forestry sector has powerful friends in the financial sector, in the big law firms and among the economic elite who’ve always had the ear of premiers and are accustomed to being heard.

Armed with a positive environmental assessment — assuming Northern Pulp’s plan gets the green light — all of those forces will be brought to bear on the government to extend Boat Harbour and save the Abercrombie Point pulp mill.

And, the government will face that decision at a time when the provincial economy is, to be charitable, sluggish. The Conference Board of Canada predicts Nova Scotia will trail the country in economic growth this year, at an anemic 0.9 per cent.

In a weak economy, the province’s determination to stick to its guns and its deadline will be tested.

The mill has economic tentacles that stretch across the province, into most saw mills and many woodlots. Its closure will hit the sector hard and be felt beyond, in places like the port of Halifax where Northern Pulp is the largest single shipper.

If the premier and the deadline are indeed unmoveable, the best outcome is a speedy end to this drama. Then the players that remain in the forestry sector can get to work on whatever transitions they need to make to survive and adjust to the loss of a mainstay.

However all of this plays out, in addition to the economic and environmental concerns, the province needs to consider the communities that are bitterly divided by this issue and bring it to a speedy resolution.

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