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Heat Turns Up on Northern Pulp

Company getting forced into the open

by Ken Summers

Heat Turns Up on Northern Pulp

Public opinion in Nova Scotia is blowing very strongly against Northern Pulp's Abercrombie Point mill in Pictou. So it is easy to forget that the company so recently had a long running de facto “social licence” for heedless pollution in service of ekeing out profits at the bottom feeder level of the Canadian pulp and paper industry.

The predecessor owners of the mill over the decades were no better than Northern Pulp, currently a shell company for Asia Pulp and Paper, an arm of the Indonesian conglomerate Sinar Mas. Prior owners accumulated lack of investment in infrastructure, in particular pollution mediation technology, has just predictably turned the mill's pollution levels from “normal bad” to breakdown bad.

The worm turned against Northern Pulp last year after a perfect storm of more severe than usual particulate pollution in the air, and a waste water spill at the Boat Harbour Treatment facility that brought to boil an already very aggravated relationship with Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN). The ramp up in the already bad air pollution was a result of years of delays in replacing the old precipitator, and the waste water spill came on the back of years of broken promises to PLFN to address the effluent treatment facility in their backyard.

January 30 - Release of Mills New 'Industrial Approval'

The Industrial Approval is the operating permit from the province's Department of Environment that sets out standards the pulp mill must meet. Everything about the regulation of the antiquated mill has become so contentious that the old Industrial Approval [IA] had expired April last year.

So it was little surprise when the fur flew as soon as Nova Scotia Minister of Environment Randy Delorey announced the conditions the mill would have to meet in the new IA. Delorey explained how the staged reductions of air and water pollution would by the end of the new IA term, in 2020, bring the Abercrombie Point mill in line with emission standards required of other North American mills.

Mill general manager Bruce Chapman has stridently disagreed, saying that the Department is “breaking new ground” in requirements, that the IA "really goes beyond where the standard is for much of the industry,” and that it does not "put us on a level playing field with other mills.”

In every one of his numerous media interviews Chapman is asked which requirements for emission reductions are so onerous. Some reporters also ask where his mill ranks in emissions compared to competitors. Chapman has always declined to give “details.”

How Do the Pictou Mill Emissions Compare to Similar Kraft Pulp Mills?

The only figures released publicly by the Department of Environment is that the mill has Chemical Oxygen Demand levels 4 times the Canadian industry average, and that water usage is the worst or among the industry worst. COD is a means of generally measuring water pollution, and water usage measures how much it takes to flush chemical compounds out of the mill discharges (effluent).

Halifax Media Coop has received more information through Freedom of Information [FOI] requests. The only data on waste water emission levels was actually redacted from the document, but we have received that redacted Table from an individual.

General manager Chapman says repeatedly that the mill is not financially viable if they have to meet the IA requirements that he claims are “aggressive.” But even the steepest COD reduction requirements of 50% by 2020 will still leave the mill 25 to 50% higher than the Canadian industry average. And that is in comparison to the 2005 Canadian industry average. That baseline will be 15 years old by then, with the industry having moved on to further reductions.

The 2020 water usage reductions in the IA that Chapman has consistently objected to will by that time still be above the Canadian average.

What Does Northern Pulp Not Want to Talk About?

A key document received through FOI requests is a report completed in 2010 for the provincial government by consultants AMEC that review the various options for treating water-borne effluents at the mill. That study very clearly explains that no amount of modification of the Boat Harbour Treatment Facility can bring it in line with current industry expectations.

While the study precedes the current Northern Pulp Industrial Approval process by several years, it does say what kind of system is required to meet the effluent emission standards that are in the current IA. The 2020 requirements the company must meet- and probably even some of the earlier reduction 'milestones'- will require a new “activated sludge process” that pre-treats the effluent before it leaves the mill site (not at Boat Harbour).

The AMEC study authors say, “It is assumed this project is attempting to develop an economic future of 25 years of more for the mill.

That would certainly be the hope, and probably what Nova Scotians expect.

But the authors also specify the alternative: “An Aerated Stabilization Basin process [what the Boat Harbour Facility is] would be a reasonable choice only if the objective was simply to prolong the life of the mill for another 5-10 years.” In other words, from when that was written, keep the existing band aid on and let the mill die somewhere in the range of between 2012 and 2020.

It was not in the consultants brief to review the very sad history of “regulating” the mill. Had they done so they would have turned up the 'plan' consistent with past preformance: let Northern Pulp get away with continuing massively inadequate band aid solutions, and the company will try to string that out to get the 25 years on the cheap.

The $90 Million Question

As noted, mill manager Chapman refuses to say what specifically the company finds so objectionable about the reduction requirements in the IA. But he does say that it would entail $90 million in capital costs, and alleges the mill cannot support those kind of costs. Without spelling it out explicitly, Chapman could not do a better job of saying 'make us go there and the mill will have to close.'

So what costs $90 million?

Throughout the FOI request documents that run from the 2010 AMEC study through Cabinet briefing notes from last year, a $100 million figure is used for the pre-treatment facility that the consultants said would inevitably be required. Which Northern Pulp thinks does not appear in the documents, but it is clear that at least the current government assumes this investment is the norm in the industry and is where the mill must go.

The first public showing of the proposed reduction requirements for the mill was the tabling of the draft Industrial Approval on January 15. Significantly, Bruce Chapman did not strenuously object at the time when he noted: “the reductions being discussed by the province are 'quite aggressive' and the company will require the time provided to comply.”

This previous message, that the company will require the whole 5 year term of the IA to meet the reduction requirements, is substantially different than the current unwavering and relentless message from Chapman - who went so far to draw Unifor local 440 into the argument - that the mill cannot afford the costs.

Without benefit of having the FOI documents, it seemed possible that Chapman on first seeing the reduction requirements just did not yet understand the cost implications. But the documents clearly show this was not the case. Not only was Northern Pulp already aware of the $90-$100 million cost of reaching the reductions that are now in the new Industrial Approval. The provincial government years ago required the company to give it a plan how the mill was going to meet those same emission levels. That was in the mill's old IA, the term of which ended in April 2014.

It is a safe assumption that Northern Pulp never provided the plan required of it several years ago. Past practice would expect the company to wait for the demand to simply go away. And the past practice of the regulator would have seen the “requirement” for a plan just punted ahead into the next replacement IA.

Instead, Minister Delorey to his credit, simply required the pulp mill to meet the reduction standards over the course of the next 5 years.

We can only speculate what changed with mill manager Chapman to shift him from his resigned acceptance of the IA requirements on January 15, to the strident threats of closure that we have been treated to at every opportunity since the January 30 official release of the new Industrial Approval for the Northern Pulp mill.


See the linked series of blogs for updates:

What Is Northern Pulp's Plan ? 


 The NDP Government and the 2011 Northern Pulp Industrial Approval




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