Northern Pulp has a new set of “friends”

But the “friends” look familiar, and the “new” Northern Pulp sure looks a lot like the same old Northern Pulp.
Sign at the entrance to the Pictou County pulp mill declaring Northern Pulp is a Paper Excellence company. Photo: Joan Baxter

Sign at the entrance to the Pictou County pulp mill declaring Northern Pulp a Paper Excellence company. Photo: Joan Baxter

This is how the “Friends of a New Northern Pulp” describe themselves on their website:

We are Nova Scotians who care deeply about our province, our forests, and our communities. We are the 36,000 Nova Scotians who own small and large woodlots.

So, just one line in and the BS begins.

The wording of the second sentence suggests that every one of the 36,000 small and large woodlot owners in the province is a “friend” of a “new Northern Pulp.”

If this statement were true, then I — as a woodlot owner — would count among the “friends” of the “new Northern Pulp.”

What is the “new Northern Pulp” anyway? If it’s the company they’re talking about, it looks an awful lot like the old Northern Pulp.

Northern Pulp’s recent submissions to the BC Supreme Court show it’s still the same old Paper Excellence company, one of whose declared “owners” is just an address in a popular tax haven (The Netherlands).

Corporate structure of Paper Excellence from Bruce Chapman 2020 affidavit to BC Supreme Court

Corporate structure of Paper Excellence from Bruce Chapman 2020 affidavit to BC Supreme Court

According to Statistics Canada’s Inter-Corporate Ownership page, Northern Pulp is still controlled out of Asia by the Sinar Mas Group / Asia Pulp and Paper.

That means Northern Pulp is still a tiny cog in the massive, multi-layered, and mind-bogglingly-murky corporate empire of the multi-billionaire Widjaja family.

Just as it has been since the Northern Pulp family of companies — with the Pictou County pulp mill, and 425,000 acres of Nova Scotia, with former Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm its board chair — was acquired by Paper Excellence in 2011.

Related: Corporate shell game – Northern Pulp seeks protection from creditors in a BC court, and it’s largest creditor is its owner, Paper Excellence

If indeed there is anything “new” about Northern Pulp, it certainly isn’t its corporate behaviour.

Like the old Northern Pulp, the company still seems intent on bullying and suing the people of this province when it doesn’t get its way, or when its expensive charm offensives fail to convince Nova Scotians that the stinking old mill in Pictou County that polluted water, air, forestry policies, and politics in the province for more than half a century could or ever would be something good for them.

We’ll come back to that.

A black and white photo of smoke and steam billowing into the air from the Northern Pulp mill when it was still operating. Photo: Dr. Gerry Farrell

Smoke and steam billowing out from the Northern Pulp mill before it went into hibernation. Photo: Dr. Gerry Farrell

Northern Pulp cheerleaders

First, a closer look at the “Friends of a New Northern Pulp” and what they are pushing for.

Their Facebook page is liked by 728 people, as of this writing.

So, not quite 36,000 Nova Scotian woodlot owners, whom they claim to represent.

In August 2021, the CBC reported that “some companies in Nova Scotia’s forestry sector” had “launched a lobby group” to “build support” for the plan to re-open the mill.

The “Friends” webpage tells us the “founding steering committee” includes:

  • Robin Wilber, Elmsdale Lumber
  • Peter Spicer, Seven Gulches Forestry
  • Ryan Scott, Scott & Stewart Forestry
  • Andy MacGregor, MacGregor’s Industrial Group
  • Earle Miller, Woodlot Owner[1]

Robin Wilber, whom CBC’s Paul Withers describes as the chair of the group, has been an outspoken cheerleader for Northern Pulp since well before the mill closed in 2020, warning that its closure could lead to the closure of Elmsdale Lumber. (Which it didn’t.)

ELmsdale Lumber website with "Celebrating 100 years" superimposed of photo of the mill and piles of lumber and sawdust.

Elmsdale Lumber website

In 2020, Wilber was named to the nine-member forestry transition team set up by then-Premier Stephen McNeil to guide the forestry sector’s transition after the closing of the pulp mill. Wilber didn’t last long. He was removed from the transition team after he told the media he thought the province should work with Northern Pulp to keep the mill on “hot idle” so it could be easily re-opened.

To learn more about the Friends of a New Northern Pulp, the Halifax Examiner emailed Wilber these questions:

  1. Your name appears on the list of steering committee members for the group “Friends of a New Northern Pulp.” Can you tell me more about how the group formed, and when, and whether Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence was involved in its formation?
  2. Who is providing the financial support for the group, for the website and messaging and advertisements that appear in the Chronicle Herald? Does Paper Excellence (or any of the Northern Pulp companies that are under creditor protection in the BC Supreme Court) provide any support, financial or other?
  3. Some Nova Scotians note that Northern Pulp companies still owe the province nearly $85 million in unpaid loans (and while they are under creditor protection are making no payments on those), and also failing to meet pension obligations, while using large amounts of money to sue the province for $450 million. How would you reply to them?

The following is the reply, not from Wilber but from an anonymous spokesperson for the Friends:

On behalf of the Friends of a New Northern Pulp thank you for your media inquiry sent to Robin Wilber this week.

The Friends of a new Northern Pulp is led by a committee of volunteers who care deeply about the forestry sector in our province. We are proud of our role in advocating for a fair environmental assessment process that includes clear environmental standards and is led by an independent expert panel. Both elements Premier Houston has called for.

While we appreciate your desire to have us respond to your questions, we also acknowledge your bias against the re-opening of the mill and against the forestry sector in rural Nova Scotia. For those reasons, we will not be participating in any interviews with you or responding to any further questions from you or your publication.

It looks like the “Friends of a New Northern Pulp” aren’t big friends of investigative or adversarial journalism, or at least not of this journalist.

Déjà vu

The PR campaign the Friends of a new Northern Pulp are waging seems to be flush with cash.

In recent weeks, its ads have been prominent on radio, in print newspapers, and on social media feeds, overshadowing new stories on the website of Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC.

CBC News website from March 7, 2022, with Friends of a New Northern Pulp ads both above and to the right of the CBC news article.

CBC News website from March 7, 2022, with Friends of a New Northern Pulp ads both above and to the right of the CBC news article.

It all feels and looks like déjà vu.

This latest campaign designed to sell the “new Northern Pulp” is very much like the one waged by the industrial forestry sector’s prime lobby group, Forest Nova Scotia, back in 2019, in an effort to keep the pulp mill open.

The aim then was to persuade the government of Nova Scotia to change the law, amend the Boat Harbour Act so that the Northern Pulp mill could keep operating and dumping its toxic effluent into Boat Harbour until such time as Northern Pulp came up with an alternative plan that passed muster with provincial and federal regulators. In other words, Northern Pulp and its “friends” wanted to prolong the suffering and trauma the stinking Boat Harbour facility had caused Pictou Landing First Nation for more than half a century.

Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul in 2019, in front of the sign counting down the days until the legislated closure of Boat Harbour. Photo: Joan Baxter

Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul in 2019, in front of the sign counting down the days until the legislated closure of Boat Harbour. Photo: Joan Baxter

Then, as now, Northern Pulp’s powerful “friends” in the forestry sector went to bat for the pulp mill.

In 2019, the signs that littered rural roadsides and yards read “Nova Scotia Needs Forestry.”

Today, new signs from the “Friends of a New Northern Pulp” boast “Science First.”

The message emblazoned atop the group’s Facebook page is: “Healthy forests need a mill.”

In response, Ray Plourde, senior wilderness coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, tells the Examiner:

A healthy forest needs a gigantic pulp mill like healthy fish stocks need more bottom-draggers. They don’t. That’s just forest industry Orwellian spin-doctoring where night is day, and up is down.

Friends of a New Northern Pulp Facebook page

Friends of a New Northern Pulp Facebook page

Mike Lancaster coordinates the Healthy Forest Coalition, a citizens’ group that formed in 2016, and “advocates for a transition to an ecological, high-value forestry industry that keeps more money in Nova Scotia, supporting multiple values such as tourism and ecosystem services.”

Lancaster tells the Examiner that this claim about forests needing a mill used to make him smile.

“It is so ridiculous that I didn’t think anyone would be taken in by it,” he says. “However, after seeing the phrase become somewhat of a slogan, repeated endlessly on social media and by supporters, I have become more concerned about its dangerous impact.”

Says Lancaster:

To claim that “a healthy forest needs a mill” would be to essentially claim “forests need humans to be healthy.” If this was the case, forests would not have been able to have evolved without the presence and influence of humans. Luckily, we know that the existence of trees, and thus forests, long pre-dates the arrival of humans. Therefore, it is completely untrue to say that forests “need” humans in order to be healthy.

Mike Lancaster sitting cross-legged in a forest, taking notes. (contributed)

Mike Lancaster (contributed)

Lancaster is concerned that the focus on re-opening the pulp mill is the wrong one for the province’s forests and forestry sector, and he says it is incorrect to state that a healthy industry needs a pulp mill:

There is a valid argument that an avenue for so-called “low-grade wood” is necessary. Having access to such markets potentially enables harvests to let higher-value trees grow whilst removing those of lesser values, often improving the value of the forest in the long-term. It is worth stating that there is no such thing as “low-grade wood” from an ecological standpoint, only a human one. The majority of our forests have been degraded by generations of over-harvesting, resulting in reduced quality and capacity. If we want to restore our forests closer to their ecological equilibrium we will need to begin letting more of them evolve naturally, not managing them from a narrow, short-term, anthropocentric approach.

We have both tremendous challenges and opportunities in public forestry in this province. In order to achieve the agreed-upon need for true ecological forestry (no harvesting during the peak of migratory bird season, the vast majority of harvests remove 40% or less of the trees, etc.), [for] productive discussion and public policy we need accurate and honest brokerage of information and public discord, when decisions that have this much potential impact are being considered. False claims serve to hinder, not help these goals … muddy the waters, falsely frame the issue, and mire us in unnecessary conflict. It’s disappointing.

Is Northern Pulp a friend to Nova Scotians?

Of course, everyone has a right to be a “friend” to anyone they want to be, so if these men ⁠— and the founding members of the steering committee listed on the website are all men ⁠— want to be friends with a “new Northern Pulp” that’s entirely up to them.

But is Northern Pulp a friend to Nova Scotians?

Should people in this province believe anything Northern Pulp or its “friends” say about a “new” Northern Pulp, given the company’s less-than-stellar record and reputation in the province?

After Paper Excellence acquired Northern Pulp in 2011, the province (which had recently loaned it $75 million to buy 475,000 acres of Nova Scotia and millions more to clean up its act) granted the company two extensions on its Industrial Approval. It finally expired in 2015.

When the province requested modest changes in emissions and water consumption for a new Industrial Approval, the company took the province to court. Eventually, the government caved, and gave Northern Pulp everything it wanted in the Industrial Approval.

Related: The Pictou mill – fleecing Nova Scotia for 53 years and counting

When the provincial government refused to amend the Boat Harbour Act that legislated the closing date for Boat Harbour as January 2020, and Northern Pulp still hadn’t come up with an environmentally acceptable new effluent treatment system, the company immediately went to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court to seek the overturning of the province’s decision that Northern Pulp needed to prepare an environmental report as part of the environmental assessment process.

So, not a great deal of respect for provincial legislation or environmental processes.

Northern Pulp didn’t withdraw the judicial review until 2021, when it formally withdrew from the environmental assessment process.

But by then, Northern Pulp ⁠— a Paper Excellence company ⁠— and seven of its affiliates had gone to yet another court, this time the British Columbia Supreme Court, to seek creditor protection.

Related: Corporate Shell Game – Northern Pulp-affiliated companies say that without major concession, they won’t be able to pay back nearly $86 million they owe to the province of Nova Scotia. So far, however, the government has not caved and is not agreeing to new financing.

Wooing, suing, and bullying

In June 2020, the Paper Excellence companies declared themselves “insolvent,” with debts of about $311 million.

Of that, nearly $85 million was owed to Nova Scotia, with another $7.1 million in pension and severance payments.

But the bulk of the debt ⁠— $213 million ⁠— was owed to Paper Excellence Canada Holdings Corporation.

An affidavit filed by Bruce Chapman of Dartmouth, “general manager (Northern Pulp) of Paper Excellence Canada Holdings,” says the latter owns 30% of the Northern Pulp companies, while the other 70% is owned by a nebulous entity called “Hervey Investment BV (Netherlands), a company under common control with PEC [Paper Excellence Canada].”

While under creditor protection in BC, Northern Pulp companies do not have to make payments on the millions owed to Nova Scotia.

Nevertheless while these “insolvent” Paper Excellence companies were under creditor protection in BC, Paper Excellence went forth and spent nearly $4 billion to acquire the Canadian and US pulp giant, Domtar. Paper Excellence also completed its acquisition of the Brazilian pulp giant Eldorado in another multi-billion-dollar deal.

Related: Paper Excellence’s very big deal and Northern Pulp mill plans “best in class” or best in BS?

In 2021, Paper Excellence also launched a PR campaign apparently led by Iris Communications in Nova Scotia to sell its vision for a $350-million “transformation” of the pulp mill that would make it “best-in-class.”

Two Paper Excellence spokespeople went on a virtual travelling road show to peddle their plans to municipal councils and the media, in their efforts to woo officials and the public to their side.

When the province issued the Terms of Reference (TOR) for the environmental assessment for that mill “transformation,” Northern Pulp went to work with some help from its new “friends,” to argue that the environmental assessment process wasn’t fair.

Friends of a New Northern Pulp ran ads asking the government to change the Terms of Reference, demanding the Nova Scotia Department of Environment and Climate Change, which operates according to the province’s Environment Act, set emission and effluent limits in advance.

“Do your job,” write the “Friends” on their Facebook page. “Set environmental standards now.”

The Northumberland Strait has friends, too

Friends of the Northumberland Strait is a community group that formed in 2018 to oppose Northern Pulp’s plans to dump up to 85 million litres a day of warm treated effluent directly into the rich fishing grounds of the Northumberland Strait.

The group is now concerned about the campaign by Friends of a New Northern Pulp to get the province to bend to its wishes on the environmental assessment. This is how the Friends of the Northumberland Strait (FONS) retorted to Northern Pulp’s “friends” on their Facebook page:

Northern Pulp, the standards are clear. It’s in the law.

FONS Facebook messages for Northern Pulp and its friends

FONS Facebook messages for Northern Pulp and its friends

FONS has this message for Northern Pulp:

Northern Pulp insists NS Environment hasn’t provided clear standards. We say, stop your blaming and do your homework. Less Public Relations. More Science.

The Friends of the Northumberland Strait are by no means the only ones arguing that the environmental assessment process is clear and fair, no matter what Northern Pulp’s “friends” claim.

In an October 2021 affidavit to the BC Supreme Court, Peter Oram, a professional geologist who has worked for more than 32 years in environmental consulting in Nova Scotia and through Atlantic Canada, writes that in his experience:

… the TOR [Terms of Reference for an environmental assessment] does not provide clarity on what levels of air emissions or effluent content would be deemed acceptable for the receiving environment.

What Friends of a New Northern Pulp don’t say

There are a few key things that the Friends of a Northern Pulp don’t get around to mentioning in their PR blitz.

Here’s one of them: Northern Pulp and its owners have launched a lawsuit against the people of Nova Scotia for $450 million.

So, if Northern Pulp gets the environmental go-ahead for their mill, they may not even have to foot the $350-million bill for the “transformation.” If the companies squeeze a few hundred million of dollars out the province in court, Nova Scotians may well cover all those “transformation” costs for the mill owners, even as the public also pays for the clean-up of Boat Harbour, which may cost upwards of $300 million.

The Northern Pulp family of Paper Excellence companies are still short-changing pension funds, and still owe the province nearly $85 million.

Not a word about any of this has made it into the onslaught of ads from the Friends of the New Northern Pulp.

Same strategy, different continent

Last week I had a Zoom conversation with Claire Simonin, a member of the citizens’ group Les Flamants Roses du Trébon, who have been working for years to try to get governments to get the Paper Excellence-owned pulp mill in Tarascon, southern France, to clean up its polluting act.

Claire Simonin at a “Flamants Roses du Trébon” stand in the Arles market, protesting the harmful health effects of the Paper Excellence mill in Tarascon, France. (contibuted)

Claire Simonin at a “Flamants Roses du Trébon” stand in the Arles market, protesting the harmful health effects of the Paper Excellence mill in Tarascon, France. (contibuted)

During the conversation, Simonin described the strategy the company uses every time it looks as if the government might finally take steps to sanction the mill for its pollution. She said the company launches campaigns — often harnessing its industrial allies in the forestry sector — to argue against the sanctions and launch publicity campaigns to garner public support, with dire warnings of what will happen if the mill closes.

Related: The French Connection

When I mentioned to Simonin that people in the forestry sector in Nova Scotia are making similar claims, she smiled ruefully. Later, she emailed her thoughts on the many similarities between Paper Excellence operations in Canada and France, where it operates as Fibre Excellence, and operates two aging and polluting pulp mills, the one in Tarascon, and another in Saint-Gaudens near Toulouse in the Department of Haute-Garonne.

This is part of what Simonin wrote about Paper Excellence:

This company has only one single strategy, a ready-made operating and communication kit that comes out from continent to continent, with the complicity of the forestry industry.

There is also the same strategy of crying misery to obtain financing: the company does not have the money necessary to comply with European standards (it only has the money necessary to buy shiny factories on the American continent with billions [of dollars]), the French government must grant it generous subsidies and exemptions of all kinds…

Simonin said that for the people fighting to have to Paper Excellence mills cleaned up and made accountable in France, “what is happening in Nova Scotia is a crystal ball showing us our future.” She continued:

There is no doubt that, if, by some extraordinary measure, we end up with the closure of this [Fibre Excellence] pulp mill [in Tarascon], or even its suspension until it is brought up to standard, the company will attack the French government as it attacked the Nova Scotia government …This company, alas, lives in another world.

So, maybe not the best kind of “friend” to anyone anywhere.

Notes

[1] Another of the steering committee members of Friends of a New Northern Pulp is Earle Miller, described simply as a “woodlot owner” on the Friends’ web page. Miller has not always been just a woodlot owner. A November 2019 Great Northern Timber Resources publication, Miller was listed as a member of Great Northern Timber’s “senior management,” specifically the “VP – Procurement & Operations.” That report looks at the “supply base” for industrial wood pellets “for export to the European power and utilities.” Great Northern Timber (GNT) is a major player in the small circle of powerbrokers in Nova Scotia’s industrial forestry sector, and its main business is chipping and shipping what they harvest in Nova Scotia.

Linda Pannozzo reported on GNT in her 2019 Halifax Examiner article, Forest Confidential, writing, “Great Northern Timber (GNT) is one of the province’s largest exporters of primary wood products, mainly dealing in hardwood chips and biomass. It’s part of the WestFor consortium — a group of 13 mills that jointly hold one western Crown harvesting licence. GNT has hardwood pulpwood allocations on Crown land and sends shiploads of hardwood chips and pellets from the ports in Halifax and in Sheet Harbour to Europe and elsewhere.” Pannozzo shows that at one point GNT exported pellets and wood chips to 17 companies in 11 countries.

Miller is the owner of a company called Curmae Limited in Truro, Colchester County, which offers “consulting and contracting services,” including a range of forestry services, from chipping to commercial harvest. So, for Miller to describe himself as a “woodlot owner,” and not to disclose his own forestry services company and former links with GNT, so deeply integrated into global markets and global players, is, well, let’s just say “curious.”

 

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