Will Feds step up to protect the Northumberland Strait?

Opinion

The Federal government recognizes that there are times when a project ordinarily handled by a province should receive a federal environmental assessment. We believe that Northern Pulp’s proposal to pipe treated effluent into the prime fishing grounds of the Northumberland Strait is one of these times.

Public concern about Northern Pulp’s proposal is strong and growing. This past spring our working group, representing over 3,000 fishermen from PEI, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and Pictou Landing First Nation, formally requested that the federal government conduct an environment assessment of this project. Our request was made to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, an arms-length agency of government, under Section 14 of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) 2012.

We are not the only ones to make a request to have the federal government take on assessment of this project. CEAA has received close to 5,000 requests from individuals, businesses, organizations, municipal councils, MPs, MLAs and the Premier of PEI asking the Feds to step up.

Two days after the #NOPIPE rally in Pictou drew 3,500 people on land and sea, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, minister responsible for CEAA, said she was “watching the issue closely” and would “assess it once we have the final proposal.”

On July 18, reporter Aaron Beswick pressed the prime minister for a yes or no answer to whether the feds would take on the environmental assessment. Trudeau responded, “This is me saying that I will not interfere with provincial jurisdiction.”

We say, “Ask a political question and you’ll get a political answer.”

CEAA is in the middle of a process to determine whether Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent treatment plan should receive a federal environmental assessment. We feel we have presented strong reasons including:

• Northern Pulp’s proposed project has the potential to impact fisheries in PEI and New Brunswick as well as Nova Scotia. It could affect First Nations commercial and food fisheries. The proposed pipe would discharge into federal waters. It has the potential to affect species at risk and Canada’s brand.

• The NS Provincial government is a party to designing the treatment facility, and contributed $300,000 to fund the design. As party to the design, it is difficult for the NS government to be, or be perceived as, an unbiased judge of the proposal.

• The province of Nova Scotia is bound by an Indemnity Agreement which makes the province liable to pay for any losses Northern Pulp may suffer from not being able to continue to use Boat Harbour until 2030. This creates a strong incentive for the provincial government to approve NP’s proposed project, regardless of environmental impact.

• The NS government decided to conduct a fast-tracked Class 1 environmental assessment, with only 30 days for public input once the project is registered. A federal environmental assessment would allow more time for public examination and input from all stakeholders, including Indigenous communities.

• The Nova Scotia government has refused to meet with fishermen’s organizations despite repeated requests, while working closely with Northern Pulp.

• The former NS Minister of Environment (replaced last week) appeared to have dismissed possible risks, before conducting an environmental assessment and without considering independent scientific information presented by our organizations or other members of the public. The minister downplayed the potential impact of the proposed project, saying that effluent has been going into the Northumberland Strait for 50 years. Documents from the mill’s own consultants show this is misleading.

At this point, Northern Pulp’s proposal has run into a snag. Less than two weeks ago, the company announced they must find a new route for the pipe. They have not announced a new plan, and have delayed registering the project. There are more questions than ever about potential impacts.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking on the deadline to close Boat Harbour by January 30, 2020.

The fisheries of the Southern Gulf, including the Northumberland Strait, account for 30 per cent of Canada’s fishery revenue, according to DFO. This federal government says it stands for ocean protection, decisions based on science, and better relations with First Nations people.

Agreeing to conduct a federal environmental assessment of a proposal to discharge 70-90 million litres of treated pulp effluent daily into one of the most productive fishing grounds in the country seems like a very small step in this direction. There is still opportunity for CEAA and the federal government to make that decision. Fifty years of bad decisions relating to pulp effluent is more than enough.

Ronnie Heighton

President, Northumberland Fishermen’s Association

River John, NS