With the deadline to close Boat Harbour less than six months off, the pressure on the provincial government to extend it, and with it the life of Northern Pulp’s Pictou County mill, is only going to intensify.
Unifor president Jerry Dias blew through town last week to toss out the number 2,700 and turn up the heat on Premier Stephen McNeil and his Liberal government. The union, which represents about two-thirds of the mill’s 350 workers, commissioned a consultant’s study that concluded closure of Northern Pulp’s mill will cost 2,700 Nova Scotians their jobs, at the plant, in the woods, at sawmills and in other related operations.
If Boat Harbour — where Northern Pulp and previous owners of the mill have dumped its effluent for more than 50 years — closes on schedule at the end of January, as prescribed in provincial law, Northern Pulp will have no way to treat the effluent and will be forced to shut down. The company has said that such a closure is likely to be permanent.
The report Unifor commissioned emphasizes the adverse impact the plant’s closure would have on the economy in rural Nova Scotia. While Northern Nova Scotia will take the brunt of the hit, forest and mill operations as far away as the South Shore and South Western Nova Scotia would also suffer, the report said.
Dias called on the province to allow Northern Pulp to begin work immediately on a new treatment facility, but that’s not going to happen until the company’s effluent treatment plan passes muster with the provincial Environment Department. A plan submitted earlier this year was found to be deficient in a number of areas. The company says it will have a revised plan to the government sometime next month.
But even if that plan is approved, Northern Pulp says it will take about 18 months to get the new facility up and running, necessitating the extension of Boat Harbour in the meantime.
Premier McNeil, whose government passed the law in 2015 to shut down Boat Harbour, has said the deadline is firm unless an extension is approved by the Pictou Landing Mi’kmaq community. Boat Harbour is a tidal estuary turned toxic lagoon by the mill’s wastewater. It is located adjacent to the Pictou Landing community.
In the unlikely event the Pictou Landing band can be convinced to extend the life of Boat Harbour, opposition to Northern Pulp’s plan to treat its effluent on site and then pump it into the Northumberland Strait will not disappear.
Fishermen from both Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are dead set against the plan and have vowed to stop the proposed pipe’s construction. They are joined by tourism operators, environmentalists and residents of the area, many of whom have come to believe that a half a century of air and water pollution from the plant is long enough.
The provincial government is caught between an immovable object of its own design — the deadline — and a stark economic reality that threatens to grow into an irresistible force as the plant’s closure become imminent.
Opponents of Northern Pulp’s plan to pump effluent into the Strait say the economics, as presented by Unifor, are as murky as the water in Boat Harbour. The Unifor study does not account for the economic risk to the lucrative Strait lobster fishery or to tourism in the area.
And, those who argue for the plant’s future claim that even a 50-year-old kraft pulp mill can be environmentally responsible and, given the economic fallout from the plant’s closure, they say it should be given that chance.
Despite those arguments, it is hard not to see this dilemma as a choice between economics and the environment.
If history offers any lessons here, the provincial government will find a way to keep the plant in operation. Cold hard economics have always won the day, not just in Nova Scotia, but almost everywhere.
But history is also teaching us that the true costs of choosing economics over the environment are much more severe than we realized.
With no compromise in sight, the McNeil government will have to decide whether it will join a long line of predecessors, break a promise to a First Nations’ community and side with the economics. Or, will it break the mold, keep its promise and choose the environment?