If the company that owns the Northern Pulp mill is serious about reopening and addressing public concerns about how it does business, it should withdraw its current environmental assessment application for a new treatment facility as well as an application before the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.
Those are suggestions in a report issued this month by the environmental liaison committee established in the wake of the company's failed attempt to get approval from the province to build a new effluent treatment facility.
The committee is independent of mill owner Paper Excellence Canada, although its makeup includes several former employees. Its aim, according to the report, is to learn about the issues that led to the closure of the mill.
Chief among those, according to the report, is the lack of trust that many people in and around the communities near the Pictou County-based mill had for the company and how it operated.
A lack of good faith
"It was evident to stakeholders over the last number of years that managing its environmental performance (perceived or real) and maintaining a strong social license to operate were not as important to management as maintaining mill production," reads the report.
It goes on to note that stakeholders did not think the company took time to truly consult people impacted by the operation of the mill or its proposal for a new effluent treatment facility, which would have seen treated effluent transported from the mill via a pipeline and discharged in the Northumberland Strait.
Along with that discharge, it also points to concerns about the proposed pipeline crossing the town of Pictou's watershed and ongoing concerns about air emissions from the mill as examples of when people thought they were left out of the process.
Officials with the company failed to address any of those issues adequately, according to the report.
"...[T]he main overarching message that mill management presented stakeholders was an ultimatum — if you do not agree with our plan then we cannot operate — instead of addressing the questions, issues and concerns being raised."
Mill shut down in 2020
The mill shut down at the end of January 2020, a month after then-environment minister Gordon Wilson ruled the company had not sufficiently addressed questions about its proposal for a new effluent treatment site for him to be able to issue a decision on the application.
Later, then-premier Stephen McNeil said his government would not amend the Boat Harbour Act, which called for the end of the former tidal estuary being used as a treatment site on Jan. 31, 2020.
Since then, the pipe leading from the mill to Boat Harbour has been removed and cleanup and restoration work at Boat Harbour continues, a project expected to cost close to $300 million.
Paper Excellence Canada, meanwhile, applied for a judicial review of Wilson's decision, something the environmental liaison committee suggests should be ended if the company is serious about building a new relationship with the community — particularly Pictou Landing First Nation — and trying to ultimately reopen.
Suggestions for building trust
Rather than trying to move forward with or litigate a proposal that was widely unpopular, the report suggests the company focus on steps that address concerns about how it operates and its level of transparency.
"If [Paper Excellence] Canada and Northern Pulp wish to restart the mill, stakeholders believe they will need to commit to being good corporate citizens."
Other steps suggested include:
Mill officials responding in a timely way to issues raised by the public.
Ensuring effluent discharge meets the highest environmental standards in the world.
Remove odour from normal pulp mill operations.
Have an independent third party verify environmental effects of mill operations.
Implement the full Lahey Report on forestry practices on all Northern Pulp-owned and managed lands.
Paper Excellence should live its espoused values with all stakeholders.
The report says a firm experienced in the pulp and paper industry is working on recommendations for possible engineering solutions to some of the problems identified in stakeholder meetings.
Pictou Landing First Nation not participating
Although the committee says it has met with various stakeholders from the community, as well as industry and government representatives, it acknowledged that a major voice remains unrepresented.
Members of Pictou Landing First Nation have thus far declined invitations to meet, with Chief Andrea Paul previously saying her community has no trust in the company.
Paul has set removing the environmental assessment application and application for judicial review as requirements before she would even consider it.
The report says the committee will continue to try to encourage a meeting with the First Nation.
"Their concerns have a far-reaching impact to many aspects of the mill's operations."
The committee says it will continue to meet and provide updates.
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