Premier Kathy Dunderdale said Monday that as far as she’s concerned, the government would be on the hook for cleaning up an environmental mess at the abandoned Abitibi mill in Grand Falls-Windsor even if it hadn’t accidentally expropriated it in 2008.
Dunderdale is also promising legislation to change the province’s environmental protection laws to make sure the government doesn’t get stuck with the bill again.
Abitibi dominated question period in the House of Assembly after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Friday the paper manufacturer isn’t responsible for cleaning up environmental liabilities at the mill it once operated in Grand Falls-Windsor.
Liberal Leader Dwight Ball was pressing for answers and accountability on the estimated $100-million cost for cleaning up the mill site, along with unknown legal costs the government will have to pay as a result of losing the Supreme Court challenge.
But Dunderdale said the Supreme Court case really doesn’t have anything to do with the province’s botched expropriation of the Grand Falls-Windsor mill.
In 2008, when Abitibi was preparing to shut down operations in Newfoundland and facing the possibility of entering bankruptcy protection, the provincial government moved quickly to expropriate water and timber rights from the company along with associated hydroelectric dams.
In the rush, mistakes were made.
Ball tried to hold Dunderdale personally responsible, and tied the issue back to the ongoing debate over whether to develop Muskrat Falls.
“When government made this $100-million mistake, the premier was then the lead on this file. Mr. Ed Martin was the CEO of Nalcor; he provided technical briefings. The current minister of natural resources was the minister of finance, and the current minister of finance was the minister of justice. They all played key roles in this botched expropriation,” Ball said in the House of Assembly. “I ask the premier: since the same people of the expropriated Abitibi mill by accident are now leading the charge on Muskrat Falls, how can the people of this province have confidence in this multibillion-dollar project?”
Speaking to reporters after question period, Dunderdale addressed the mill issue directly.
“We’ve never tried to shy away from the fact that we never meant to expropriate the mill. We did that piece of work over four or five days,” Dunderdale said.
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“We felt we had to move quickly to secure those assets before we lost access to them, so we prepared legislation quickly.”
But Dunderdale — who was natural resources minister at the time, and responsible for the Abitibi file — said there are other contaminated Abitibi sites in the province that the government didn’t take, but they’ll still be on the hook anyway.
“They haven’t done anything in Stephenville nor do we believe do they have any intention in cleaning up Stephenville. They closed Stephenville, you know, a year or more before they found themselves in crisis and in bankruptcy protection,” Dunderdale said.
“No question. You know, we expropriated the mill and we ought not to have done that, and certainly and in context of the bankruptcy proceedings we’re going to be liable for the cleanup, but we’re also liable in those other places and we didn’t expropriate them. So can anybody tell me why they believe that Abitibi was going to come in and clean up Grand Falls-Windsor if we hadn’t expropriated it.”
Dunderdale said this isn’t an issue that’s limited to Newfoundland and Labrador; she said the Supreme Court decision that bankruptcy proceedings effectively trump environmental laws means that governments across the country will need to rewrite legislation.
She said she’ll be looking into pressing Ottawa to change bankruptcy legislation, but in the meantime, the government won’t be sitting still here.
“We’re going to undertake legislation to put in place financial undertakings when people intend to develop and operate an industrial site for remediation,” she said. “So we’ll do in these circumstances now the same as we do with new mines operating in the province. You have to give undertakings — financial undertakings — at the beginning before you actually develop the mine for remediation of the mine when the work is completed.”