HALIFAX - One of Nova Scotia's leading environmental groups is accusing the province of quietly weakening forest sustainability and land protection requirements for the new owners of the Port Hawkesbury Paper mill in Cape Breton.
The Ecology Action Centre says the final agreement signed Friday between the province and Stern Partners — the mill's parent company — includes two clauses that have set off alarm bells.
The first would allow the mill to drop its certification by the Forest Stewardship Council.
The council's certification tells consumers that the company's forestry practices are well-managed and sustainable.
Matt Miller, a spokesman for the centre, said the agreement says Port Hawkesbury Paper can, with the province's approval, drop the certification in favour of an "alternative certification."
As well, Miller said previously undisclosed portions of the agreement could allow the company to log 89,000 hectares of Crown land that was supposed to be protected under agreements signed by the mill's previous owners.
Natural Resources Minister Charlie Parker confirmed that Port Hawkesbury Paper can chose another certification process, but he said the province would have the final say.
Parker said it wouldn't be in the best interests of the company to seek a more lax certification process because such a move would go against what customers are demanding.
As for protected lands, Parker said it was his understanding that particular portion of the agreement was the same for the previous owners.
He said that no later than Dec. 31, 2014, some of the protected land could be handed to the mill for logging if the province already has enough land to meet its legislated commitment to protect 12 per cent of Nova Scotia's land mass.
"There could be some of that land that could go back to the Crown," he said. "It may or may not be suitable for cutting."
The minister said this was the same agreement with NewPage Corp., which shut down the mill in September 2011, throwing 600 employees out of work.
Miller said NewPage had actually committed to protecting that parcel of land beyond 2015.
After almost a year of negotiations, Stern Partner's affiliate Pacific West Commercial Corp. agreed to buy the mill for $33 million last Friday.
The mill resumed making paper Wednesday with 260 employees.
Under a deal struck last month, the Nova Scotia government is providing a $124.5-million aid package on top of the $36.8 million it has spent keeping the mill in a so-called hot idle state.
The deal also includes an amended discount power rate agreement with Nova Scotia Power Inc. The mill is the utility's largest customer.
When an outline of the deal were released at a technical briefing Aug. 20, the Ecology Action Centre said it was cautiously optimistic because it appeared to contain the same environmental provisions that the previous owners had agreed to.
However, Miller said a clause-by-clause review of the final agreement turned up the two subtle changes.