Still time to avert disaster and create a win-win-win solution

Opinion

Ever since the Boat Harbour Act was proclaimed in 2014, the PLFN has exercised great patience and respect for the processes undertaken as part of the Act. On December 20, 2019, the PLFN was rewarded with the confirmed closing of Boat Harbour on January 31, 2020. Their actions over the last number of years has created a living legacy going forward for their community.

While the flow of effluent from NP will soon stop, it will be years before the site is cleaned up. Work on the site has been discontinued since the Federal Government has announced an environmental assessment on Boat Harbour which is estimated to take at least two years. If all goes well it is estimated that it will take a further 8 to 10 years to complete the cleanup at a cost of approximately $220 million.

Premier Stephen McNeil, under great pressure, made a very principled decision to honour his word given to enact the provisions of the Boat Harbour Act without change and ordered the closure of Boat Harbour on January 31, 2020. He must be respected for his decision.

On the other side of the coin, the forestry industry in Nova Scotia is being devastated as a result of this decision: 300 mill workers have already received layoff notices, 2,700 rural forestry workers are fearfully awaiting word on layoffs and another 8,300 owners and workers are impacted along with 32,000 woodlot owners. This does not include the forest industry workers in Eastern Nova Scotia who supply the Port Hawkesbury Paper Mill (PHP). They, too, will be impacted because the price of pulpwood has already dropped $15 per tonne with further reductions to come as the glut of wood persists. Mr Stern and PHP have proven, since taking over PHP, that they are very tough negotiators when it comes to their suppliers. They now will have a monopoly on the Nova Scotia forestry sector. There will be bankruptcies, significant banking loan losses and great hardship created from Pleasant Bay to Yarmouth. The $50 million transition fund will be a drop in the bucket to what is needed.

I doubt if there is one person affected by the closure of NP, whether directly or indirectly, that wants to take advantage of this $50 million transition fund but it may prove to be useful in another way.

The closure of the mill will cost PNS multi millions of dollars to settle all of the indemnity agreements with NP. The loss of the good paying jobs, the reduced revenue and profits earned by remaining forestry operators, forestry workers, woodlot owners as well as businesses that service the forest industry, particularly in Rural Nova Scotia, will significantly impact the provincial tax revenues earned going forward. To add insult to injury, the only winner in the shutdown of NP is PHP. When Mr Stern negotiated the purchase of PHP he also got $1.1 billion in tax losses as part of the deal. So Nova Scotia will not see any tax revenue from PHP’s increased profits for many years to come.

Why did the parties end up in this position? In my view this was a result of a lack of communication amongst all the parties. Examples include: Recently Chief Paul said in an interview on CTV that NP wished to meet with her. She told NP that she would not meet with them. A year ago, the PNS’s Department of Environment gave NP a list of studies it was required to undertake in order to get an environmental approval. When the studies were presented to the Minister of Environment they were rejected as incomplete and more studies are needed. Originally, there were seven studies requested. Now they are up to 68. How does one respond to a moving target? At the December 20 news conference, the premier advised that the mill had five years to do the studies to get approval and they didn’t do the work. There certainly has been a communication disconnect between the parties throughout this whole process.

The past is the past and Boat Harbour is going to be cleaned up. That is a fact.

If everyone accepts today as the first day of our future, I believe there may be a way to achieve everyone’s objectives – to clean up Boat Harbour, keep the mill running, stabilize the forestry industry in Nova Scotia, be environmentally sustainable and protect the financial stability of PNS. But action must be taken and finalized on or before January 31, 2020

The plan calls for 11 Action Steps, as follows:

ACTION STEP #1

Each of PLFN, PNS and NP would name an independent person to join a “Coordination / Monitoring Committee” (the Team). The Team would appoint a fourth independent person as Chair. The Team would independently manage the completion and finalization of this Plan on or before January 31, 2020.

ACTION STEP #2

The Team would meet with the Band Council and the PLFN community who would consider entering into an agreement to allow NP to continue to pipe its effluent into Boat Harbour after January 31, 2020. As consideration for this agreement with NP, PLFN would approve entering into a separate agreement with PNS to utilize a portion of the Transition Fund to benefit the PLFN community directly.

My best friend from our university days is a Maliseet indigenous person from New Brunswick who was the first person from his First Nation to get a university education. He worked for over 35 years with the Federal Department of Indigenous Affairs in First Nations all across Canada and he has repeatedly told me that the way forward for all indigenous people in Canada was to achieve a much higher university graduation success rate. He said it is coming but it is a slow process.

While the closing of Boat Harbour is a good legacy achievement, an agreement to allow for all the children of PLFN and their children’s children to get their education paid for out of the Transition Fund would certainly achieve a very Enhanced Legacy.

If other priorities are brought forward to PNS, they would all be discussed to achieve a result that works for both parties.

ACTION STEP #3

The maximum timeline that would be requested would be five years to January 31, 2025 broken down with definitive deadlines as follows:

  • The Environmental studies and formal approval are expected to take 24 months. To be safe allow 30 months to July 31, 2022.
  • The construction of the new treatment facility is expected to take 24 months. To be safe allow 30 months for testing to January 31, 2025.

If any of the above noted deadlines are not achieved the agreement between PLFN and NP would be null and void but the agreement with PNS remains permanently in place.

The above noted timeline of a maximum of 5 years is well within the actual timeline now in place of 10 to 12 years for the cleanup of Boat Harbour and should not extend the cleanup period.

ACTION STEP #5

The PLFN Band Council will make a decision based on input from the community.

If the answer is “No” to the proposal then this is the end of the discussions and PLFN gets the closure of Boat Harbour but nothing else.

If the answer is “Yes” to the proposal then we move on to the next 6 steps.

ACTION STEP #6

The Team and the PLFN Council will meet in Pictou Landing with Premier McNeil, Tim Houston and Gary Burrill to allow them to get a first hand look at the community, listen to the concerns for infrastructure and education funds and to participate in getting a broad agreement.

The reason for including these three MLAs in the meeting is that one of them will be Premier after the next election and PLFN will want to ensure that there is broad acknowledgement to an agreement by all three parties and PLFN wants to ensure that there will not be any changes to the agreement if there is a change in government.

ACTION STEP #7

With a broad agreement in place, the Premier and his Cabinet will finalize their participation. The Team and PLFN will be available to negotiate any changes proposed.

Once Cabinet has approved the agreement, the Legislature will be called back to approve the Agreement reached.

ACTION STEP #8

The PNS Department of Environment must immediately identify exactly what it requires NP to complete in order to get their environmental approval for construction of their new treatment facility including outflow and to make it broad enough so that the Feds don’t step in later to override it. There cannot be additional changes as the process is undertaken.

ACTION STEP #9

NP must document immediately that the new proposed treatment facility will meet current environmental regulations issued by the Federal and Provincial Departments of Environments. If additional treatment is required, NP must plan on how it is going to achieve those levels. Previous suggestions have included Cells being constructed in the Hwy 106 triangle.

ACTION STEP #10

NP must identify a new route for the pipe carrying the treated effluent to Pictou Harbour. There are three rivers flowing into Pictou Harbour, the East River, the Middle River and the West River. As the Middle River is the source of clean water into the Mill to be used in the manufacturing process, the East River (preferred route) and the West River are the options that must be selected and approved by government as soon as possible.

ACTION STEP 11

Over the next month the Team will meet separately with each party and with all three groups as required.

There is nothing like a deadline to get things done for the benefit of everyone because all parties are focused on the task at hand.

In today’s world of Climate Change, the sustainability of the environment is extremely important while at the same time we require economic development to maintain our standard of living. In the case of NP, I believe that good forestry practices (the Lahey Report), environmental sustainability and technology used in industry can coexist. This is the challenge that hopefully can become a made in Nova Scotia solution.

Ira Mac Innis, CPA, CA

(a former long time resident of Pictou County now living in Halifax)