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N.S. paper mill seeks public help, as actor Ellen Page steps up criticism

PICTOU, N.S. — A Nova Scotia pulp mill is asking for public support for more time to build an effluent pipeline to the ocean, even as one of the province's best-known Hollywood actors steps up her criticism of the plant.

Kathy Cloutier, a spokeswoman for parent company Paper Excellence, said the Northern Pulp mill is hoping people and groups in the province's forestry industry will issue public declarations in support of an extension for the effluent pipe project.

She said people who work in forestry realize the major impact it would have on the sector if the 330-employee mill can't operate because it can't discharge its treated waste into the Northumberland Strait.

"It will need to be vocal so that the premier feels that extending the deadline is something the community, the industry and politicians would support," said the spokeswoman.

Her appeal came as the province's lands and forestry minister, Iain Rankin, made it clear his government won't change the Jan. 30, 2020, deadline to shut down the Boat Harbour treatment lagoon at the Pictou Landing First Nation.

"We made a commitment to that community. The act passed with all party support. It gave the mill five years to switch to a different effluent treatment facility so Boat Harbour could cease to operate. And we continue to expect that," said Rankin.

Meanwhile, Ellen Page, a Halifax-born actor who played roles in "Inception," "Juno," "X-Men" and numerous other films, tweeted this week in support of Joan Baxter's book "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest."

Baxter's book traces 50 years of citizen criticism of the mill's environmental impact and efforts to have government do more to protect human and environmental health. It also examines the tactics the province originally used to convince the Pictou Landing First Nation to sign off on the deal allowing pollution to flow to Boat Harbour.

Page refers to Baxter's work as a "must read," and she retweeted comments by a few of her 1.2 million Twitter followers who are critical of the impact of the plant's emissions.

"Did it make me sad and angry? Yes. Did it also inspire me greatly? Yes," Page tweeted of the book.

After reading Cloutier's comments to The Canadian Press, Page again tweeted Friday, writing: "The ... statements in this article are classic tactics used for decades to avoid taking responsibility for the horrific effect on the environment and claiming the effluent is safe when it's not." She again urged her followers to read Baxter's book.

Cloutier said the company has been making environmental improvements over the past decade.

Earlier this year, the firm completed the $36.9-million replacement project for the stack known as a precipitator. It uses static electricity to remove solid chemical particles from air emissions, and critics acknowledge the work has led to a significant improvement in air quality.

She said the company "acknowledges the history," but believes the new treatment plant project represents an opportunity.

Cloutier also said the bleached kraft mill is the backbone of the province's forestry industry because there is a close relationship between sawmills, pulp mills and paper factories.

"Removing that would have catastrophic effects. It's not a scare tactic. It's an actual fact," she said.

The spokeswoman notes the factory purchases 95 per cent of wood chips produced by the province's saw mills. 

"Traditionally those chips and bark are often the difference between breaking even, a loss and having a revenue," she said, adding that Northern Pulp's closure would have a "widespread impact."

Fishermen have said they object to the distribution of treated effluent in their traditional fishing grounds due to uncertainty over the impact.

The company's public presentation says effluent emissions include organic halides, which encompass compounds ranging from chloroform to complex organic molecules such as dioxins and furans, but it says it's "well below World Bank guideline(s) for pulp mills."

It also notes the effluent emissions result in suspended solids — ranging from clay, sand, silt, organic matter and particulates — but says the levels will meet Canadian Council of the Ministers of Environment guidelines for aquatic marine life.

In an interview via texts, Baxter criticized the environmental review process the province has set up for the effluent pipeline, arguing the province is in a conflict of interest and there is a lack of independent oversight in the process.

She said the province — which owns the Boat Harbour facility and leases it to Paper Excellence — has a legal indemnity agreement that may require it to pay the company for lost profits if it can't operate due to a change in the status of the Boat Harbour facility.

"I think it (the pipeline) should go for a federal assessment," she wrote.

"I agree with the fishermen and the Friends of Northumberland Strait (a citizen group opposed to the pipeline proposal) that the province is in a conflict of interest because of the indemnity agreement."

Rankin said he's aware of the legal agreement, but he again pointed to the Boat Harbour Act, "which does state that the effluent treatment facility can no longer be discharged into the harbour."

Asked if the legislation would trump the contract, he said he didn't want to speculate on "what could happen 14 months from now" — and added he still expects the company to meet the existing deadline.

Karla MacFarlane, a local Progressive Conservative member of the legislature, said in an interview that her party agrees with the Liberals that no further delays in ending the flow of effluent into Boat Harbour are acceptable.

"The Progressive Conservative Party agrees and honours that the deadline is 2020," she said.

— By Michael Tutton in Halifax.

Follow (at)muttoncporg on Twitter.

The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Iain Rankin is the province's environment minister and misspelled Kathy Cloutier's last name. Rankin is in fact now the lands and forestry minister.

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