Northern Pulp says it “cares” – but for whom and what?

This article was originally published in the Halifax Examiner on February 21, 2019.

“We care,” says Northern Pulp on the website it has created to spread the word that it “cares about forestry families of Nova Scotia.”

The site is a vehicle for the company’s letter-writing campaign to get people in the forestry sector to contact Premier Stephen McNeil, their MLA, MP, or even Canadian Senators to ask for an extension to the legislated deadline of January 31, 2020 for the closure of Boat Harbour as a stabilizing lagoon for effluent from the Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence mill in Pictou County.

Effluent from the Northern Pulp mill flows out of a pipeline. Photo: Joan Baxter

The form letter on the site requests the extension “to allow Northern Pulp and Paper Excellence the time required to commission and construct a new, environmentally responsible onsite treatment system.” The letter is signed, “A concerned supporter of Nova Scotia’s forest industry.”

This isn’t the first time Northern Pulp has resorted to composing and sending out form letters to try to garner support for itself and its interests, be it to town councils trying to get them to lend their support to a campaign to get the Boat Harbour closure date changed, or to its employees and former employees to get a (my) book signing cancelled in New Glasgow.

The Northern Pulp “cares” website is just part of the company’s intensive PR and lobbying campaign, which also means rallying its supporters in Canada’s largest private sector union, UNIFOR, to get the pro-mill message out in advertisements on the airwaves and social media.

Screenshot from Northern Pulp website from February 20, 2019

In its messaging, Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence cites some impressive figures about jobs. On the day the company registered its new effluent treatment project with the province, Kathy Cloutier, communications director for Paper Excellence, told media in Halifax, “We currently have in the area of 300 full-time employees, direct jobs related within the region would be about 2,040.” She described Northern Pulp as “one of the anchors within the industry,” which she said hosts “11,500 jobs.”

The 11,500 figure comes from a 2016 study commissioned by the pro-industry group, Forest Nova Scotia, which estimated there were 6,100 direct jobs and 5,400 spinoff jobs from forestry in Nova Scotia.

The numbers provided by Northern Pulp to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, when it took fishermen to court in November 2018 for blocking the vessel doing survey work for a new effluent pipe into the Northumberland Strait, are far more modest. In his sworn affidavit, Northern Pulp General Manager Bruce Chapman stated that should the mill have to shut down, 277 employees would be laid off, as would 40 nursery and woodland employees of affiliated companies, and there would be no work for 600 contractors who harvest wood for the mill. He also highlighted how dependent major sawmills in the province have become on the pulp mill.

Fishermen and others who are dead-set against the proposed pipe because of its potential impact on the rich fishery in the Northumberland Strait, argue that fishing and tourism in the region employ many thousands, and that most of the money they generate is circulated locally, not shipped — as are the raw pulp and profits from the mill — to Asia.

Hannah Fleury, from a fishing family in Pictou County, carries a protest sign. Photo contributed by Hannah’s mother, Nicole MacKenzie

On its “npcares” website, Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence boldly declares, “We are proud to be forestry families of Nova Scotia.”

No word on how it feels about the province’s fishing families.

Pictou Landing First Nations is ignored

Also conspicuously missing in the Northern Pulp advertising blitz is mention of Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN) families, and how much they have suffered with the stench of the toxic lagoon in their backyard since the pulp mill began piping its effluent into Boat Harbour in 1967. Nor is there any mention of how many times — I count three — that the province or mill owners have promised to close down and clean up Boat Harbour since 1990, and then betrayed the promises.

According to Brian Hebert, a PLFN lawyer, in 2001 a promise was made to PLFN that a bypass pipeline would be built to take the mill effluent into the Northumberland Strait, and Boat Harbour would be closed and cleaned up. On this basis, the First Nation agreed to an extension of the Boat Harbour lease. When the company decided the plan wasn’t feasible because it would result in eutrophication in the Strait, it was abandoned.

Nevertheless, in 2002 the Progressive Conservative government of Premier John Hamm went ahead and extended the lease for the mill’s use of Boat Harbour until 2030. Hebert notes that this was predicated on a Boat Harbour bypass that never happened, and tells me “this should be enough to nullify their consent to the lease extension and thereby invalidate the lease extension.”

The Boat Harbour Act of 2015 that set January 31, 2020 as the closure date for Boat Harbour was long overdue.

Pictou Landing First Nation’s “countdown ceremony” on January 31, 2019, making 365 days until the legislated closure of Boat Harbour. Photo: Joan Baxter

On the day that the Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN) community and several hundred allies were gathering in a school gym to celebrate the start of the one-year countdown to that legislated closure of Boat Harbour, Paper Excellence Director of Communications, Kathy Cloutier was holding a press conference in the legal office of McInnes Cooper in Halifax, as I wrote here.

She told the media that Northern Pulp was looking “in the proximity of a year” for an extension to the legislated deadline, which is what they would need to get the new system approved, built and functioning, if there were “no barriers or hiccups.”

She defended the amount of time it had taken Northern Pulp to come up with the plan for the new effluent treatment facility, saying the company had been delayed by the “lengthy” process of obtaining a new Industrial Approval in 2015 and 2016.

Screenshot of Kathy Cloutier at the Northern Pulp press conference, January 31 2019.

Cloutier didn’t mention that the reason the Industrial Approval process was so “lengthy” is that Northern Pulp refused to accept reductions in water use and production levels proposed by the province, so it sued the government. The company didn’t withdraw the lawsuit until the government caved and gave the mill what it asked for.

Asked about the event scheduled that morning to express PLFN opposition to any extension to the use of Boat Harbour, Cloutier claimed that Northern Pulp and Pictou Landing First Nation had the “same goal,” for Boat Harbour, just that the mill needed “a little bit more time to get there.”

When I asked PLFN Chief Andrea Paul for her reaction to Cloutier’s comments, she replied, “We do not share the same goals. It took me a week to even be able to listen to her statement. To say we have the same goals, she must have fabricated that in her head.”

PLFN Chief Andrea Paul. Photo: Joan Baxter

Northern Pulp goes against PLFN in court

Northern Pulp and PLFN certainly don’t share the same goal in court.

On January 21, 2019, PLFN learned that it would be up against the province and Northern Pulp in the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, defending a Supreme Court decision that it had the right to be consulted about any provincial funding for the new effluent treatment facility.

According to the affidavit of February 4, 2019 that Chief Paul filed with the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, back in 2016 PLFN learned that Northern Pulp and the provincial government were “jointly designing a new effluent facility to service the mill,” and a year later that they were “discussing cost sharing of the proposed new treatment facility.”

In January 2018, PLFN counsel wrote to the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, which was conducting the consultation on the new treatment facility, to “ask that the Province clarify the scope of the consultation included the decision of the Province on funding the new treatment facility.”

The province replied that it had no duty to consult.

In April 2018, PLFN filed an application with the Supreme Court for a judicial review of this decision, insisting it should be involved in consultations, and in November, Justice Timothy Gabriel ruled in its favour.

When the province appealed this decision in January 2019, Northern Pulp was also permitted to file a brief. Chief Paul’s affidavit states that this brief suggested that the PLFN interest in consultation was “for the purpose of forestalling the funding decision indefinitely.”

“I take offence to this suggestion,” states Chief Paul in her affidavit, noting how cooperative PLFN has been with the mill since 1990.

So, no sign there that Northern Pulp “cares” much about the wishes or rights of the PLFN community.

Fudging the funding issue

PLFN — indeed all Nova Scotians — has every reason to want more clarity on who is going to pay for the new effluent treatment and disposal system, which is currently undergoing a provincial Class 1 environmental assessment, and open for public comment until March 9, 2019.

An Indemnity Agreement and a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 1995 appear to put the province on the hook for all costs related to the mill’s effluent, while indemnifying in perpetuity the mill owners and everyone who has ever worked for it in just about any capacity.

According to the citizens’ group Friends of the Northumberland Strait (FONS), the agreements signed in 1995 put the province in a conflict of interest when it comes to the new effluent facility.

In a press release, FONS president Jill Graham-Scanlan put it this way: “The province’s history with Northern Pulp is a tangled web, including an agreement carried forward from 1995 stating that ‘Nova Scotia agrees to use its best efforts to assist Scott obtain [sic] all necessary permits, consents and approvals to permit the construction and operation of a replacement effluent treatment facility to replace the [Boat Harbour] Facility at the expiration of the term of the Lease.’”

Last year, Premier McNeil’s government admitted that Nova Scotians would have to pay some of the costs of the new effluent facility. Transport and Infrastructure Minister Lloyd Hines told CBC’s Michael Gorman that taxpayers should be prepared to pay for part of the project but that the province was looking to “partnering” and  “sharing liability” with “reasonable partners.”

In December 2018, Premier McNeil told the Canadian Press that the province was in discussions with Northern Pulp over crown funding for the new facility, and that if the province had to pay for it, the government would let the people know. He also alluded to an outstanding loan that was part of the funding process, although he was unable to say what it was worth and made it clear it was not a loan the Liberal government had given to the mill.

There are a fair number of loans he could be referring to.

Although it’s not something you’ll hear or read in the Northern Pulp ads, the people of Canada and Nova Scotia have been remarkably generous to the mill on Abercrombie Point, which has been owned since 2011 by Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence, part of the corporate empire of the multi-billionaire Widjaja family of Indonesia, and before that by a series of large American corporations.

In 2011, Peter MacKay, then Minister of National Defence and MP for the area, announced that the Conservative government of Stephen Harper was giving Northern Pulp $28.1 million for a “green transformation.”

Between 2009 and 2013, the government of Nova Scotia loaned or granted Northern Pulp $111.7 million for land purchases, infrastructure, and environmental upgrades, among other things. For the past 52 years, the mill has also had access to extremely inexpensive water — up to 92 million litres a day — and to huge amounts of wood from public land.

In addition, the province provided Northern Pulp with about $12 million between 2009 and 2018. According to JoAnn Alberstat, spokesperson for the Department of Lands and Forestry, that funding was for forestry sustainability agreements, silviculture on crown land, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, purchase of tree seedlings from the Northern Pulp nursery, and forest inventory work on Northern Pulp’s own lands.

The province also put $6.1 million towards the new effluent facility. Transport and Infrastructure Renewal spokesperson Marla MacInnis explained that grant this way: “Government provided Northern Pulp with $6.1 million with the understanding it would be used for detailed design and engineering studies needed to advance plans for a new effluent treatment facility, which the company plans to build. . . The money was provided over two fiscal years — 2016-17 ($144,980) and 2017-18 ($6,001,238) — and the parties agreed it will be credited toward any final agreement.”

During her Halifax press conference, Kathy Cloutier said that new effluent treatment system would cost about $130 million, and that it would be a “company-facilitated project,” which could mean just about anything.

Northern Pulp’s map for the proposed new effluent pipeline.

Pressed on whether there would be any money from the province, she replied, “Well, there’s discussion with respect to the loss of an 11-year lease. Those negotiations are underway and what does that monetary value look like. … we can’t comment further on that aspect because they are in discussions now.”

When I asked Marla MacInnis for clarification, she replied: “The Province is not funding the new Effluent Treatment Facility. We have been in discussion with the company about what would be fair compensation for the province’s decision to end the lease of Boat Harbour 10 years and 11 months early. These discussions have not yet concluded. When we reach a final agreement, we will share the details with Nova Scotians.”

At some point, it looks as if the province decided it might be more palatable to taxpayers if it said it was not paying for Northern Pulp’s new effluent facility, and that any payments to the mill would be compensation for its loss of the use of Boat Harbour.

This is a politically expedient option for McNeil’s Liberals. Were the province to be held liable for the costs of the new effluent treatment because of the Indemnity Agreement, then blame could be apportioned to the former Liberal government of John Savage that signed the agreements in the 1990s. Some might also wonder how it is that the lawyer who signed those agreements on behalf of the mill, and who was a registered lobbyist for the mill between 2009 and 2014, is now Deputy Minister of Business and of the Office of Strategy Management in the government of Stephen McNeil.

Claiming that government money flowing to Northern Pulp is compensation for its loss of the use of Boat Harbour means that the finger of blame can be pointed at former Progressive Conservative Premier John Hamm, who signed the lease for the use of Boat Harbour until 2030. Today Hamm is chair of Northern Resources Nova Scotia Corporation, the parent for Northern Pulp and a family of related companies. He recently told the Halifax Examiner that he has no regrets about signing that lease.

Big hit to the treasury coming

Regardless of what the province claims it is — or is not — paying for, the citizens of this province should brace themselves for some very hefty bills relating to the mill.

The remediation of Boat Harbour could cost up to $325 million, at least according to current estimates, and the province is responsible for those costs because of its 1995 agreements with the mill. [In May 2019, the federal government announced that it would kick in $100 million towards the remediation of Boat Harbour.]

At least one of the loans to Northern Pulp — $75 million for the purchase of 475,000 acres of timberland in the province in 2010 — doesn’t come due until 2040. So who knows how or when that will be repaid? A Freedom of Information request for details on the terms came back with those details redacted.

Northern Pulp has already said it needs longer to complete its new effluent treatment facility, or else it will have to close in January 2020.

That could open the door for costly legal action.  When Bill No. 89 — the Boat Harbour Act — went to the Law Amendments Committee in April 2015, Northern Pulp’s submission pointedly reminded the province of the numerous agreements it had with the mill, including:

  • Memorandum of Understanding dated December 1, 1995
  • Lease dated December 31, 1995
  • License Agreement dated December 31, 1995
  • Indemnity Agreement dated December 31, 1995
  • Water Supply Agreement dated June 30, 1995
  • Lease Extension Agreement dated October 22, 2002
  • Acknowledgement Agreement by the Province dated May 12, 2008

In its submission to the Law Amendments Committee, Northern Pulp also noted that in the 2008 Acknowledgement Agreement:  “…the Province confirmed that each of the Agreements and understandings between the Province and the mill’s prior owner, Scott Maritimes Limited, are in good standing and will continue in full force for the benefit of Northern Pulp.”

In other words, Northern Pulp fully intends to hold the province to all of the legal agreements previous governments signed over the years, which could be very costly indeed.

Tensions are running high in Pictou County, and Northern Pulp’s (no-doubt expensive) PR campaign is not doing anything to ease them.

At this point, however, it is anyone’s guess of how the saga of this 52-year-old pulp mill is going to end.

But Nova Scotians can be fairly certain that no matter how or when it ends, it is going to cost them very, very dearly.

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