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Northern Pulp Shifts Gears to Aggressive Offense

Company makes clear it cannot live with new requirements

by Ken Summers

Between 1989-2014, the Ministry of the Environment was soft-handed with the Abercrombie Point pulp mill in Pictou, Nova Scotia. During that time, despite breaking numerous federal emissions thresholds, sometimes by thousands of percentage points, the mill was issued all of three warnings. Now, with the threat of a new, 'tougher', Industrial Approval looming, the mill laments that new regulations will destroy its competitive edge. [Photo: M. Howe]
Between 1989-2014, the Ministry of the Environment was soft-handed with the Abercrombie Point pulp mill in Pictou, Nova Scotia. During that time, despite breaking numerous federal emissions thresholds, sometimes by thousands of percentage points, the mill was issued all of three warnings. Now, with the threat of a new, 'tougher', Industrial Approval looming, the mill laments that new regulations will destroy its competitive edge. [Photo: M. Howe]

PICTOU, Nova Scotia - Ever since the January 30th, 2015, announcement by Nova Scotia Minister of Environment Randy Delorey on the long awaited timeline for phased air and water pollution reductions for the Abercrombie Point pulp mill, owners Northern Pulp have been protesting the requirements in the new operating permit.

On the very day the new Industrial Approval (IA) was released, the pulp mill's general manager Bruce Chapman told the CBC, "These compliance standards that they have come out with are beyond what has been requested by other provinces or states, pretty much anywhere in North America.

"Our goal was to have a permit that enabled us to meet our environmental responsibilities, while at the same time growing our business. This permit simply doesn't allow us to do that. It doesn't allow us to have a long-term sustainable business in Pictou County."

Minister Delorey repeated the message that the phased reduction requirements contained within the IA would bring Northern Pulp in line with regulatory norms for the industry.

Northern Pulp has continuously declined to answer reporters' questions about specific problematic areas of the IA. The company also repeated at every opportunity that it would formally appeal the IA. Things had been quiet for the last 3 weeks or so, and it appeared that the company was waiting to file that appeal.

Instead of waiting, this week Northern Pulp decided to go on the offensive.

First, they circumvented Environment Minister Delorey, brought along the mill's union (Unifor local 440) and sought out a meeting to discuss the offensive IA with Minister of Natural Resources Zach Churchill. Northern Pulp's General Manager Bruce Chapman went even further- taking the unusual step of pointedly publicizing that the company and union were going around the Minister with authority.

Understandably, the publicity surrounding the meeting appeared to catch Zach Churchill off guard. When asked about the meeting he only responded that: “I can’t speak on behalf of the department of environment. The questions concerning the IA are strictly in that department."

Since Northern Pulp regularly meets with Minister Churchill about wood supply for the mill, there was the possibility the issue of the offending IA was brought up at one of those meetings. That possibility became moot with Chapman throwing another log on the fire talking with a reporter the next day: “We met with Natural Resources (Tuesday), the union set up the meeting because they are concerned and we are concerned … Everyone needs to understand how this affects our long-term business. We are at a serious impasse with Nova Scotia Environment.”

In effect, Chapman was now pushing Unifor local 440 onto centre stage in refuting the mill's new Industrial Approval.

With Northern Pulp being so explicit that the meeting was sought for discussing the IA, and with Minsiter Churchill admitting he does not have authority to discuss the IA, there was understandably some kind of communication breakdown. When Churchill's spokesperson was queried about whether the Minister had agreed to meet with Northern Pulp and the union about the IA specifically, the non-answer that eventually came back was:

“Those discussions are usually around fibre supply and industry innovation. Minister Churchill said the message he received from Northern Pulp is that they were committed to being in Nova Scotia for the long term.”

While Northern Pulp's Chapman continuing to decline elaboration on specific issues in the Industrial Approval, the public is left with choosing between his persistent general claim that the standards his company are being held to are well beyond what is required of other mills, and the government's equally persistent claim that the mill is only expected to be brought up to industry norms for North America.

Attempts to get the mill's manager to expand on previous limited references to some of the specific requirements in the IA have all reached an impass - often with references to the “complexities of the issues.” When Chapman was asked why he did not see it in the company's interest to be specific about the supposedly onerous standards, he replied that they did not want to get into specifics before seeing "the new IA”.

The government had announced in the days following the January 30th release of the IA, that there was a 'typo' that needed correcting. Since the Environment Act requires that even the slightest change to an IA requires a formal amendment, and a 30 day waiting period before that could be released, the Department notified Northern Pulp of this action.

So it was surprising to hear Chapman referring to the “new IA,” as if it might be substantively different than the Industrial Approval released on January 30. He clarified that if there were no real changes in the “new IA,” Northern Pulp would go to the formal appeal process. When it was pointed out to him that the withdrawal of the IA was explained by Environment as a simple typo that needed correcting, he inexplicably referred to that as “speculation”.

While it is not clear what exactly is unfolding here, the newly aggressive offensive speaks for itself.

  • Northern Pulp repeatedly makes clear it is very displeased about how it is being treated by the Minister of Environment, and decided to go around him.

  • Companies lobbying where they think they have a sympathetic ear in the government is not unusual. But Northern Pulp took the extra and apparently deliberate step of being very public about it... even to the point of putting their hoped for champion, the Minister of Natural Resources, in an uncomfortable position.

  • And Northern Pulp's manager, who has mounted this offensive, appears to be holding out hope that a necessitated very limited in scope revision of the Industrial Approval will go much further- vanishing the unspecified onerous pollution reduction requirements.

The government is free to issue the amended Industrial Approval on March 9. Stay tuned to see the nature of those revisions.


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