Community concerns must be considered during Milltown project Environmental Impact Assessment

Written by Kim Reeder on July 22, 2019

NB Power’s Milltown Generating Station and dam. Photo by Kim Reeder.

After the announcement by NB Power of the Milltown Generating Station decommissioning and removal of the dam, the company held an open house meeting on July 11 in St. Stephen. Discussion at the event included the implications of the upcoming Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

During the open house, Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) Director of New Brunswick Programs Nathan Wilbur congratulated NB Power on their Milltown decision, and reassured the landowners and cottage owners gathered in the crowd that, “along the rivers, there is nowhere in the west where they’ve removed dams and property values decreased.” In partial response to earlier comments by MP Karen Ludwig, and to the general atmosphere of concern, Wilbur said that in ASF’s experience, “the sediment issues are not issues, the environment recovers itself incredibly quickly, in just a couple years.”

However Art MacKay, a local scientist unable to make the meeting, shared with the NB Media Co-op his concerns about the toxins in the sediment. MacKay, who has worked and studied the river his entire working life, pointed out that for almost two centuries, the St. Croix River has been subjected to serious pollution from industry and domestic sewage. “The bottom sediments of the river and estuary are known to have high elevations of toxic chemicals which should remain ‘locked in’ where they are,” he believes.

He warns that the river has in the past experienced serious negative impacts downstream in the Estuary and Passamaquoddy Bay, and the proposed decommissioning process must plan to avoid any disturbance that would contribute to, “loss of biodiversity, commercial fisheries and creation of ‘dead zones’ in the estuary.” Stating “the release of sediment-laden waters upstream from the Milltown dam will cause impacts downstream for an unknown period and extent,” he added that project engineers, “must take sediment samples for analysis to ensure that impacts similar to those experienced in the Hudson River, Elmira, Ontario and elsewhere are not repeated.” Mackay also referenced a well-known 2003 report, detailing sediment pollution in the St. Croix.

Toxic sediment disturbance is only one example of potential regional effects. Rightsholders such as the Passamaquoddy Recognition Group, are currently undertaking a regional project to restore habitat and ecosystems, and will likely identify and provide evidence-based science for other issues needing attention. Other stakeholders and experts likely to chime in on the potential changes include the federal government, the International Joint Commission, and the Boundary Commission, at the very least.

The NB Power Milltown project is subject to New Brunswick’s Environmental Impact Assessment Regulation (Regulation 87-83), governed by the provincial Clean Environment Act. The regulation is designed to identify impacts associated with projects in advance of their implementation, so that negative effects can be avoided or reduced to acceptable levels before they occur.

The next step for the Milltown Project is the first step in the provincial EIA process, the NB EIA registration. Registration requires submitting a document with the results of the proponent’s EIA study, including details of the proposal, its potential impacts, and how significant impacts may be addressed. An assessment should include all potential environmental, socio-cultural and economic impacts, and define and deliberate on ‘alternative means’ and ‘alternatives to’ carrying out the project, including technical and technological alternatives. Evaluating alternatives will ideally identify the most effective way to meet the need and purpose of the proposal, and to specify its alternatives in sufficient detail to identify potential direct and indirect impacts, including cumulative effects.

What remains unknown though, is whether the upcoming Federal Impact Assessment Act (IAA,  Bill C-69) or a harmonized federal/provincial EIA process will be invoked. However, both the current federal Act governing EIAs, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012 (CEAA 2012) and the proposed IAA are guided by the ‘one project, one assessment’ mantra. For example, the governments of both New Brunswick and Canada implemented a harmonized environmental impact assessment process for the Sisson Project. Under this approach, both levels of government agree to cooperate to carry out of the EIA to meet the requirements of their respective legislation.

Stakeholders involved in EIA have long been concerned about scoping process, the definition of the physical area and social and economic values the EIA will take into consideration. This concern now exists for the Milltown project, including limiting the investigation to concentrate only on the specific project, not the ecosystem within which the project exists.

It may be that the Milltown project should undergo what is referred to as a Regional Environmental Assessment. Sandy Greer, in her submission to the upcoming federal Impact Assessment Act explains, “Hope for more environmental assessment rigour…resides in the… inclusion of Regional and Strategic Assessments, in order to deepen and expand the inclusion of ecosystem-wide environmental data, to render the potential environmental impacts much more realistic and truthful, despite our human and technological limitations.” She believes that those participating in an EIA process must “develop a mindset that is not grounded merely in our arbitrary political jurisdictions – federal, provincial and municipal – but instead is willing to develop understanding of our existence within bioregions.” Greer points out that the natural world “does not stop and start functioning at either side of human-constructed political boundaries – including, of course, international boundaries, i.e. between Canada and the United States,” but that “environmental hazards spread ubiquitously.

One reason that NB Power hosted an open house is to start the process of collecting data to be included in the NB EIA registration document. That includes not only biophysical data but also data on how the community feels and what the community values. In the EIA study, this data is transformed into what are referred to as Valued Environmental Components (VECs). VECs are eventually dismissed if projected effects are likely to insignificantly impact these values. If the determination is that the project may have significant impacts on these values, a mitigation proposal is developed. However, internationally, the VEC approach is falling out of favour and is being replaced by what is being referred to as an ecosystem approach. In the Great Lakes, for instance, the International Joint Commission (IJC) voiced recognition of the `ecosystem approach’ in all of its deliberations at public hearings in recent years.

In the St. Croix region, the IJC also has a role to play. Its two main responsibilities include: approving projects that affect water levels and flows across the boundary, and investigating transboundary issues and recommending solutions. In 2007, the IJC created its first International Watershed Board, the International St. Croix River Watershed Board (SCRWB). The Board aims to prevent and help resolve disputes over the boundary waters of the St. Croix River, monitors the ecological health of these waters and ensures that the dams on the river comply with the Commission’s Orders of Approval.

NB Power executives address community members at the Milltown Open House meeting on July 11, 2019

At the July 11 meeting, SCRWB member Jessie Davies explained that the Board had only recently learned of NB Power’s plans for their Milltown Generating Station and will need more details on the plan and potential impacts to the St. Croix River’s ecosystem, water levels and flows. She added, “We understand that consultations with First Nations and key stakeholders are underway. The Commission and its Board will be staying updated on the project and will consult with governments as required.”

It seems the stars may be aligning for the Milltown project to be the case study for a Regional Impact Assessment using an ecosystems approach, especially due to its international nature, and the current interest in regional and strategic assessments. During the open house meeting and referring to what kind of funding may be available for the EIA, NB Power’s CEO and President Gaëtan Thomas stated he believed the St. Croix, “deserves the same kind of federal help as the Canadian Rivers Institute (CRI) study for the Saint John River.”

The CRI Mactaquac Aquatic Ecosystem Study (MAES) was conducted to capture the ecosystem science that would support informing the EIA for the Mactaquac Project. The study was financially supported, in part, through matched funding available from federal research grants that NB Power intends to explore for the St. Croix. In that case, as explained in a 2015 NB Power media release, the University of New Brunswick’s CRI was awarded $2.8 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to conduct the aquatic ecosystem study to support NB Power’s future decision on the Mactaquac Generating Station. At the time, it was the largest grant of its type awarded in Atlantic Canada. However NSERC grants are adjudicated in a non-political peer-review process, so future grants for the Milltown project are far from guaranteed. NB Power spokesperson Sheila Legacé clarified that, “We are in the very early stages of this project so at this point, it is hard to speculate about the level of study or the level of funding that will be required.” 

Kim Reeder is a RAVEN research assistant who is involved in many rural community initiatives. She intends to write further stories for the NB Media Co-op about the Milltown dam decommissioning process.

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