What exactly was the mistake? Is the premier wrong about what he got wrong?
This is how the provincial Department of Natural Resources described the expropriation kerfuffle in a news release, issued on February 5, 2010 (a Friday afternoon):
Through the passage of Bill 75 on December 16, 2008, the Provincial Government revoked timber and water rights from Abitibi. When determining which assets/properties to expropriate, the Provincial Government included power-related infrastructure and the hydroelectric facility attached to the mill itself. Language to exempt the mill and the other two properties on Reid Lot #59 was not included in the final bill, as intended, and therefore the Provincial Government has legal title to these properties.
This fails to explain what happened and why the Government now believes that it owns the mill.
Here is the Abitibi-Consolidated Rights and Assets Act, which expropriates the power plant, wood lots and other assets. It is brief and composed in reasonably clear language.
There are two sections of the Abitibi Act that may be in play. In section 5 the Government expropriated the power plant, and the associated assets that are needed to make that work. That part of the Act refers to a Schedule C, that actually has a description attached, which the Premier has implied was done incorrectly. If this is the case, the description simply included the mill even though it wasnt the Governments intention to take over ownership of that, and all the environmental problems that comes with it.
Section 5 relates to expropriation of property. Section 5 is just 98 words long, stating in part that, The right, title and interest in all assets located on the lands described in Schedule C are expropriated to the Crown. Schedule C contains a description of all expropriated properties, including the Grand Falls Power Plant, with detailed coordinates. No diagrams are included.
However a lot of people have an interest in understanding this issue, and I have seen an unofficial survey diagram of the land expropriated in Section 5 which doesnt include the mill. A rough copy of it is reproduced above, overlaid on a map of the mill area and highlighted in yellow. If you look closely, you will see that the survey takes in the power plant, dam and portion of the riverbed. It carefully skirts the mill area to the right. (For an enlarged version of the map, please click here).
A long time ago, I worked as a surveyors assistant, and I know how carefully this work is done. This does look legitimate to me, though I would much rather see an official survey. If the government is now saying that it inadvertently expropriated a large area outside the power plant, there are a lot of people in Grand Falls-Windsor whod like to know exactly what the Government has seized. It is essential that they release an official plot to show where the mistakes were made.
Theres another possibility for where the mistake was made, and its with respect to the drafting of the Act itself not a survey error at all. It may well be that the problem the Premier was referring to lay in Section 3 of the Act, which would be an entirely different and far more serious problem, that no one so far seems to be acknowledging.
Section 3 of the Act cancelled rights that Abitibi held. It refers to a long Schedule A that includes lists of various rights. Many were licenses issued by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, and it seems pretty clear that the legislature has the power to cancel a timber license. This is very different from, and should not be confused with, the expropriation of property.
However, buried in the cancellation section 3 and the Schedule A that it incorporates are hundreds of square miles of rights that werent licenses or leases. They were fee simple ownership rights that the AND Company bought from the Reids in the very early years of the 20th century. Some of these areas were huge, 40 square mile blocks totaling well over 300 square miles. And the critical one is Reid Lot 59, that the Premier referred to in the quote at the start of this piece. Because Reid Lot 59 is where the power plant, and the mill and most of Grand Falls-Windsor now sits.
A lawyer Ive spoken to has some doubts that the language of Section 3 is clear enough to actually expropriate any fee simple rights, but concedes that the point isnt entirely clear. To clarify that, one would either have to go to court to get a determination, or go back to the legislature to fix any ambiguity.
The question that should be on everyones mind is, what exactly was the mistake? Is this a simple survey error that just got missed, and ended with the seizure of an environmental nightmare? Or is it worse? Is the real problem that in cancelling Reid Lot 59 under Section 3, the Government has seized all of the original Reid Lot 59, including the power plant, the mill and the homes of a lot of people in Grand Falls who bought property over the past century from the AND Company, and Abitibi? Because if thats the case there are hundreds of affected parties, and one major can of worms has been opened.
Its high time that someone came clean about precisely what mistake has been made, and what will be done to fix it.
The first scenario, a botched survey, is simple to prove or disprove and I would hope that some media outlet gets on this. Spend a few dollars. Plot the description in Schedule C.
The second scenario is far worse than a simple error in a description. The second scenario would mean that, since at least since February 5, 2010, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has been aware that they have potentially seized all of the original Reid Lot 59. Thats speculation right now, but, if its correct, we have a problem much larger than a used paper mill on our hands.
We are entitled to some answers on this one. Real answers. Not pat reassurances from a shifty and vague Friday afternoon news release.