Imagine a warm summer night, the windows are open and the rooms of your home fill with a haze known to contain carcinogens and other poisons. Downstairs your child is awake and stumbling in the semi-darkness to find her puffer. The incident unfortunately is real and she’s among the record number of Pictou County children and adults with asthma or other respiratory illnesses. The toxic haze is emission from the Northern Pulp Mill which pounds it out at a level when last measured eight months ago, was 78% above what they are allowed.
On Wednesday, August 12th Health and Wellness Minister, Leo Glavine called Northern Pulp’s pollution “unacceptable”. He told CBC, “We cannot sacrifice health and the environment to these jobs. Paper Excellence may operate one way in Indonesia, it will not operate in Canada and Pictou County in the future unless there is a dramatic improvement.”
The time had come for the Government of Nova Scotia to take a tough stance against the mill. Enough is enough.
You will have to forgive me if I am neither optimistic nor impressed. This government has provided no reason to trust or have any faith in their ability to act responsibly. I could get into the behaviour of past governments but it’s not necessary. There is enough documented evidence of their incompetence in the mismanagement of their codependent relationship with the Pictou County pulp mill. The only one that matters right now is Stephen MacNeil’s Liberal government.
Why is it impossible for me to cut them some slack and show a little appreciation for the tough new attitude? For one thing a lot is hinging on long overdue emissions testing scheduled for next week. Northern Pulp has had weeks to prepare for the testing and plenty of public pressure to make sure they will control any results they can. I’m curious if the tests will reflect production levels within their allowance or the levels they’ve been running all summer to achieve record production. Apparently the poor ol’ mill might finally make a little profit this year. Yes, that’s right, a year when they are being allowed to operate well above their “allowance”. I’m not sure Environment Minister Delorey has explained how that works.
Why can’t pressure be backed off of this government for a moment?
On July 16th, the Ministers of Environment, Health and Wellness, and Economic and Rural Development and Tourism met with a group of concerned businesses in Pictou. The Clean Pictou Air Group had invited them to hear concerns regarding how the mill was negatively impacting their businesses and the community. They arrived in force, with Deputy Ministers and other members of the staff. Around sixteen strong. They spoke, listened and left with a short list of requests.
Minister Delorey was there to explain why his department appeared to do nothing despite rising concerns about emissions that were clearly out of control. He was asked to do something, sooner than later.
Minister Samson was invited because, after all, these were businesses in a rural community, largely involved with tourism and they were experiencing an economic crisis. Interesting thing about Samson is that he disappeared entirely after the meeting. As though he didn’t understand that if he could provide the least bit of vision, support or encouragement regarding a sustainable economic future there would be zero tolerance for the abusive behaviour of the mill. He clearly missed the fact that we are not a one industry town and if we were, that industry would not be Northern Pulp.
Then there was Leo Glavine. He was the hope really, because by that point we all knew that the real crisis was in the burgeoning levels of particulate matter, carcinogens and community health. It was obvious the mill wasn’t running at full capacity that day, but they cranked back up by early evening. Perhaps not realizing that Glavine was staying the night! He experienced the full reality of the emissions and the dire conditions people of Pictou are living with. Four weeks later he told the press, “I was there. I had a walk-jog in that air and it is, indeed, unacceptable.”
Between July 16th and August 12, Minister Glavine and his department avoided questions altogether and directed countless inquiries to the waffling Department of Environment as it was “their file”. Finally there was too much pressure and he had to speak, “We only have anecdotal information,” he said. “We have nothing really substantial from the scientific community or medical community to indicate that we have a problem that needs to be addressed right at this moment.”
Not only did this outrage those choking on toxic smog, the health community also had enough and started to become vocal.
Why did the Minister break his silence in the first place? A couple of things happened on July 28th. The Clean Pictou Air Group along with members of Clean the Mill, met with Northern Pulp management. During the meeting David Kerr, Vice President of Operations for Paper Excellence Canada, responsible for running the mill, admitted to being bewildered by the current level of emissions. He also made it clear that if the mill shut down to clean up before the spring of 2015 they would not open again. An admission of the obvious coupled with the standard threat that if you push us to behave responsibly, or any other way than we chose, we will leave town.
So far almost everything about this story could be expected. The other thing that happened that day was Canadian business leader and Pictou County resident, Paul Sobey spoke to the media. He was angry, passionate and frustrated. The socio-economic, health and environmental crisis taking place in rural Nova Scotia began making headlines, capturing provincial and national interest.
At the same time as all of this is unfolding, the Clean Up the Pictou County Pulp Mill Facebook group was reaching almost 5000 members, protesting in the streets, gathering signatures, fact finding and hammering politicians and government departments with letters, emails and telephone calls.
At first, when forced to speak, Ministers Delorey and Glavine, outraged the public with their lack of compassion, downplaying personal tragedy and severely degraded quality of life as mere anecdote. No reason for action. They opted for the weak-kneed, futile culture of waiting for the mill to do the right thing. Ignoring that Northern Pulp has absolutely no history of doing the right thing. Why should they?
This week the Government of Nova Scotia is taking a tough stand with Northern Pulp because they have been forced to by unrelenting public and media pressure. It has nothing to do with courage, integrity or the simple common sense that is sometimes necessary to do the right thing. Last week they said one thing, next week it be will something else. If I am optimistic it is only because of overwhelming admiration for the thousands who are proving that we really do have the power to drive change and shape a sane and sustainable future.