The province churned out a little pulp fiction as another glorious summer weekend began.
“Any decision,” according to the scripted words of Nova Scotia’s Environment Department, “must be based on science and the best available evidence.” Any decision, of course, is one decision, namely whether effluent from the Northern Pulp Mill will be pumped out into the middle of the Northumberland Strait for dispersal with the currents.
Having shuffled the cabinet the day before Friday’s mass rally to protest the pipe plan crowded the old town of Pictou and its harbour, the government could pretend it didn’t have a minister briefed-up to speak to the issue. That’s a stretch, given that the new Environment Minister Margaret Miller is back in the job after a year at natural resources where the mill’s future would have been the subject of more than a few meetings, conversations, memos and such.
The fact is the provincial government is lying low for the moment, but it knows that eventually it faces Sophie’s choice between the mill and its long economic reach or all those interests represented by the folks gathered on land and sea at Pictou Friday, not least of which is the Strait lobster fishery.
Stephen McNeil’s five-year old Liberal government has itself wedged between a rock in the woods and a hard place somewhere out under the water of the North Shore.
“Our Class 1 EA (environmental assessment) process allows the minister flexibility of options,” read the written response from environment and that’s as close as the government got to the crux of the matter. That is, ultimately this is a political decision and the government’s future could hang in the balance.
Most Nova Scotians have heard of Boat Harbour, that poisoned lagoon that sits at the edge of Pictou Landing First Nations’ soil where the mill’s effluent has poured for 50 years. That must end by 2020, says the law passed in 2014 by the same McNeil government.
The alternative proposed by Northern Pulp is to treat the stuff before piping it about 10 kilometres out into the Strait via a three-foot-round pipe. The pipe needs to be that big to carry something like 70-million litres of effluent daily.
It’s the thought of those 70-million daily litres that brought fishing boats from three Maritime provinces to Pictou’s Harbour, where their crews joined in the chorus of “no pipe” echoing from the shore.
The folks gathered there could look across the water at the mill that employs about 300 Nova Scotians fulltime. But, more than 2,000 jobs, mostly in northern Nova Scotia, depend on the mill when you factor in all the wood harvesting and related work. Northern Pulp is worth about half-a-billion dollars a year to Nova Scotia’s economy.
To say that this is a decision that tests McNeil’s Liberals is an understatement.
It may be a blessing that the politics here offer no clear win because that will force the government to fall back to Plan B, which is to make the best decision it can for the province.
If you envy McNeil and company that decision, you don’t see the whole picture and I’ve failed to paint it above. One more time: On one hand you have fishermen plus just about anyone within sight of the Northumberland Strait dead set against the pipe plan. On the other, are 2,000-plus Nova Scotians, a good many of whom also look out at the Strait, dependent on the mill for the daily bread on the family’s table.
Pictou County is all Tory blue and likely to stay that way no matter what the province decides, but the Liberals hold seats directly east and west in Antigonish and Colchester North, both of which are vulnerable and potentially gone depending on this decision. McNeil’s two-seat majority can’t afford to lose both.
Everything we know about the McNeil government from five years of observation suggests the pipe plan will be approved, backed by experts to say the stuff that’s pumped into the Strait won’t harm a mackerel let alone a sturdy bottom-feeding crustacean. What happens to people who eat the lobsters or swim off the North Shore beaches will need some specialists’ spin too.
But all that won’t get the job done. Anti-pipe positions are hardened, as one protesting fisherman told The Chronicle Herald’s Aaron Beswick, “There will not be a pipe going into the Northumberland Strait.”
This decision has all the feel of a make-or-break call for the provincial government.
Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.