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With the province’s two highest courts questioning Gordon Wilson’s ability to make an unbiased decision on Northern Pulp’s effluent treatment plant, the Department of Environment offered up a two-sentence written response on Thursday.
“The Department of Environment’s job is to ensure that this project, and all projects, are reviewed based on science and the best available evidence,” reads the statement sent by department spokeswoman Rachel Boomer on Thursday.
“Both the department and Minister Wilson take this role very seriously.”
Meanwhile, those opposed to Northern Pulp’s controversial plan to pump effluent into the Northumberland Strait are planning further court action in anticipation of Wilson green-lighting the project later this fall.
“I would think there are lawyers looking at injunctions right now,” hinted Allan McCarthy, a Caribou fisherman and one of the leaders of the opposition to Northern Pulp’s proposal.
“How can the province be lender, regulator and judge and jury all in one?”
Bias alleged before
Provincial government lawyers argued in the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal earlier this year that it is “speculative” and “unfounded conjecture” to suggest, as the Pictou Landing First Nation had, that the environment minister’s decision would be biased by the fact that the province was already paying Northern Pulp’s design and environmental assessment costs associated with the proposed effluent treatment plant.
“The submission turns a blind eye to history,” reads the decision by a three-judge panel.
“For decades, the provincial government has vacillated this way and that, weighing economic stimulus against environmental concerns from the mill’s discharged contaminants.”
Both Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Timothy Gabriel in his 2018 decision and the Court of Appeal panel found that the province had placed itself in an apparent conflict of interest by funding the project and assessing whether it be allowed to proceed.
“If the province is to become the lender, not only is it providing the means by which the (effluent treatment facility) will be built, but it will have an interest to insure that the mill will continue to remain in operation into the future so as to at least recover the taxpayers’ investment,” wrote Gabriel in a decision that demanded the province consult with the Pictou Landing First Nation about funding Northern Pulp’s new effluent treatment plant.
As the province was appealing that decision, Northern Pulp filed hitherto unknown funding agreements with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal that put the taxpayer on the hook for up to $8 million to design its new effluent treatment plant and for the mill’s cost of participating in the environmental approval process.
The province included in those contracts a clause forbidding the mill from releasing any details about the deal to the taxpayer who is paying for it.
The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal upheld Justice Gabriel’s decision and reiterated the unlikelihood the Department of Environment would not approve a project the provincial government was already funding.
A lack of trust brewed by backroom agreements, said a Dalhousie University law professor, undermines the entire environmental approval process.
“If we want to make good decisions, open and inclusive processes are key; they build trust, and lead to better outcomes for everyone,” Sara Seck said.
“This is especially so when governments find themselves in potential conflict of interest situations like this one, which unfortunately are not uncommon.”