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Tree-clearing resumes on traditional land

Courtesy Northvolt

Tree cutting in preparation for the construction of a battery plant in the Montérégie that was temporarily paused earlier this month has now resumed after a Quebec Superior Court judge rejected an injunction filed by an environmental group to halt the work.

Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief Ross Montour said he hopes they’ll have better luck with the approach they’re taking with their own lawsuit, which seeks to interrupt the construction by ordering the provincial and federal governments to consult them on the project. 

“It wasn’t unexpected,” Montour said about the judge’s decision to reject the injunction. “There’s a lot of money tied up in this.”

Both the MCK and the Quebec Environmental Law Center (CQDE), which filed the injunction, oppose the clearing of trees and the destruction of wetlands that will result from the plant. The MCK made repeated efforts since October to Quebec demanding consultations begin with them on the use of their traditional land – without success.

The factory for the production of electric car batteries is set to be in operation by 2026, and will be located across 170 hectares of land between Saint-Basile-le-Grand and McMasterville.

In a decision released last Friday, Quebec Superior Court judge David R. Collier wrote the CQDE failed to bring forward a convincing argument leading him to doubt “the validity of the ministerial authorization and the municipal permit.” Quebec’s environmental ministry authorized the project, while the neighbouring Saint-Basile-le-Grand granted the permit to cut trees at the site.

While the judge acknowledged the “loss of a natural environment that is both rare and important” for the region is sure to result from “the destruction or damage” to nearly 14 hectares of wetlands at the site, he wrote this loss is compensated by efforts taken to date by the company to restore Quebec’s environment in other areas. 

Northvolt, the Swedish company behind the project, paid $4.7 million toward a provincial fund aimed at preserving and restoring other existing wetlands in Quebec, the judge noted in his decision. In addition to that, it promised to plant 24,000 trees to make up for the 8,730 living and 5,365 dead trees it would cut at the site, he wrote.

“​​Northvolt contends it will suffer enormous economic harm if its project is delayed or ultimately abandoned,” the judge also wrote, adding it’s a “green” endeavour. “Quebec considers the Northvolt project of great importance to the province’s economy, with it creating 3,000 new jobs once the factory is built.”

Since the MCK isn’t being consulted and information about how that $4.7 million will be used to restore other wetlands is difficult to come by, Timothy Law said it’s hard to have faith this will make up for what’s to come at the Northvolt site. He works with the Kahnawake Environment Protection Office (KEPO) and advises the MCK whenever Quebec’s environmental ministry consults with them on projects requiring their authorization.

“We can’t count on the payment to the fund as being an appropriate type of compensation for the losses that we’re going to see at the Northvolt site,” Law said.  “We need time to explore what compensation actually means.” 

An audit by Quebec’s auditor general last April also found funding set aside for the preservation and restoration of wetlands in the province is underutilized, Law added. Though Quebec’s environmental ministry had $29 million injected into one fund over 2019 to 2022, less than $2.5 million was approved to go toward wetland projects, the audit found. The audit also revealed the province was frequently granting wetland destruction authorizations to companies that failed to demonstrate they had sought alternative locations for construction off of existing wetlands. 

“This financial compensation removes the responsibility from the proponent and makes them look good for having paid into it, but it doesn’t actually achieve any of the no-net-loss goals that the financial compensation is trying to get at,” Law said. 

Quebec’s environmental ministry’s decision to move ahead with the battery plant also comes following its rejection of a housing project on the same lot of land last March. 

At the time, it justified its decision on the grounds it would cause too much damage to the wetlands there, writing in a decision in early March that the ponds, marsh, and swamps there “allow for the maintenance of biodiversity in a context where natural environments are rare and where agricultural practices and urban development homogenize the landscape.”

The MCK was also among those consulted in 2022 ahead of the province’s decision to not authorize the destruction of wetlands there, Montour reminded.

“They denied it when it was a housing project, and then they turned around and arbitrarily approved the project without consulting – and the judge supported that. He felt that was fine; we don’t think it is,” Montour said of judge Collier’s decision. “Like I’ve said before, I’m not opposed to green energy, but I can’t support the destruction of species.”

As for the MCK’s lawsuit, Montour said he’s still waiting to hear when their day in court will be. He said their lawyers will be pushing for ongoing court ordered case management hearings between the MCK, Quebec, the federal government, and Northvolt, as a means to establish negotiations between everyone involved.

miriam@easterndoor.com

This article was originally published in print on February 2, in issue 33.05 of The Eastern Door.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.