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Russell Wangersky: The politics of pollution

Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky

The bigger you are, the more attention you get — some of it good, some of it not so good.

And the bigger an industry player you are, the more attention — and help — you get from government.

It’s an open secret that, if you employ enough people and turn enough money around, especially in rural parts of Atlantic Canada, governments can be exceptionally flexible.

If you’re a fisherman who keeps bycatch halibut that comes up dead in nets fishing for other species, you’re likely to get charged.

But if you’re a new aquaculture operation promising hundreds of jobs, the provincial government you’re dealing with may well speed your project through the environmental process, regardless of the unanalyzed effects on wild fish stocks of your operation.

If you’re a homeowner whose oil tank leaks, you — or your insurer — may eat hundreds of thousands of dollars in cleanup costs. But if you’re a paper mill creating a mess that will cost $133 million to clean up, you might find the provincial government willing to cover the cost of cleaning it up for you.

Government subsidization can take many forms: it might be direct subsidies, like interest-free loans. It might be agreements that significantly slow or delay cleanup of ongoing pollution. It might be waiving or reducing reforestation costs or stumpage fees, or even charging substantially lower water rents for at-sea aquaculture pens.

But the laws of physics say that for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.

Northern Pulp in Nova Scotia is getting ready to finally replace an effluent system that has been polluting Boat Harbour for more than 50 years.

It’s a plan that’s being met with both skepticism and opposition, and for good reason, not the least of them being that Northern Pulp doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation. It’s overshot air pollution levels pretty regularly, and promises to replace both its effluent and air treatment systems have been long and foot-draggy. (A Boat Harbour cleanup was first promised in 1995, after all.)

The premier of P.E.I. is even stepping into the fray from across the Northumberland Strait, asking both the premier of Nova Scotia and the federal government to ensure there’s a complete environmental investigation of the proposed treatment system, which is set to pipe waste that’s gone through aeration and settling processes through a pipeline for dumping in the Strait.

The Nova Scotia government currently has the project going through a relatively-fast Class 1 environmental assessment — ostensibly, because it’s an existing operation. So, quicker review for a mill that has been a long-term polluter.

There are, of course, potentially even more tangly issues on the horizon. In 1995, the Nova Scotia government agreed to pick up the tab for the eventual cleanup of that site, now estimated at $133 million. Those cleanup costs will only crystalize now — and may get the attention of the U.S. Commerce Department, which recently slapped a broad set of duties on Canadian newsprint producers, citing a broad range of government assistance that had been determined to be unfair subsidies.

As the Commerce Department put it, “Imports from companies that receive unfair subsidies from their governments in the form of grants, loans, equity infusions, tax breaks, and low-priced production inputs are subject to ‘countervailing duties’ aimed at directly countering those subsidies.”

The paper mill in Port Hawkesbury, N.S. is only just coming out of a years-long battle over whether or not they were receiving preferential electrical rates. Newsprint mills in Canada are in the midst of a new trade complaint, with interim duties of 6.53 per cent across the board, and other mills, like Corner Brook, N.L.’s mill, being slapped with interim duties of 9.93 per cent.

Governments want to help big employers — that’s a given. But there have to be limits.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.

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