MLAs accuse province of trying to escape cleanup of longtime Bathurst 'eyesore'

·5 min read
After 12 years of developers not following through on promises, the site of the former Smurfit-Stone paper mill remains undeveloped and an environmental cleanup is yet to be done. (Radio Canada - image credit)
After 12 years of developers not following through on promises, the site of the former Smurfit-Stone paper mill remains undeveloped and an environmental cleanup is yet to be done. (Radio Canada - image credit)

For more than a decade, a former mill site in northern New Brunswick has gone neglected, required environmental work hasn't been completed, and provincial property taxes remain outstanding.

Now some MLAs are calling on the provincial government to clean up the former Smurfit-Stone pulp and paper mill property in Bathurst, and subject it to a tax sale after 12 years of broken promises by developers.

Green Party Leader David Coon said if the the property were put up for a tax sale, the province would have to take on liability for any contamination.

"And unfortunately and irresponsibly, they have been refusing to do that," he said.

The Bathurst site is the most significant example of properties left to languish for years because the province hasn't acted, Coon said.

"The taxes build up, the province won't do what it normally does, which is put it up for tax sale because of the environmental liability, and it won't clean it up to enable them to sell it for tax sale.

"So the property just sits there as a, as kind of an abandoned property and gets, you know, it's, it's an eyesore. It's a, it's a potential source of contamination for the surrounding area."

CBC
CBC

Once the home of Consolidated Bathurst, a longtime employer in the city, the mill was taken over by Smurfit-Stone, which closed it in 2005, throwing 270 people out of work.

In 2010, Bathurst Redevelopment Inc., a Canadian subsidiary of Illinois-based Green Investment Group, bought the property.

The Green Investment Group promised a "green cleanup," but the site was only stripped of valuable metals and equipment and left in disrepair, according to government officials.

In 2016, a judge ordered the company to pay $150,000 for failure to comply with a ministerial order to clean up the property.

Around the same time, Bathurst Redevelopment Inc. transferred the property to Raymond Robichaud, a businessman from Bouctouche for $1. Robichaud, in January 2016, promised to clean up the site in order to build luxury condominiums and a strip mall.

At the time, the province waived $1 million owed in property taxes, so long as Robichaud stuck to his commitment to rehabilitate and develop the site.

However, two years went by with little progress, prompting former Bathurst mayor Paolo Fongemie to call on the province to seize the site and clean it up itself.

Robichaud died in February of this year, according to Raymond Leger, Robichaud's brother-in-law.

Radio Canada
Radio Canada

Leger said he did not know what would become of the property after Robichaud's death, and CBC News was unable to contact other relatives.

Neither Finance Minister Ernie Steeves nor Environment Minister Gary Crossman were made available for an interview.

In an email to CBC News, Erika Jutras, spokesperson for the Department of Finance and Treasury Board, said the site is still owned by Robichaud's company and notices of tax sale were sent with respect to the property.

"Pursuant to section 12 of the Act and as part of due diligence, Expression of Interest notices were posted, in locations visible to the public, indicating the Minister is interested in locating the assessed owner or anyone with a legal interest in the property," Jutras said. "This was done on April 11th."

Jutras also said the structures on the site and required environmental cleanup remain the responsibility of Robichaud's company.

"The Province is working with the City of Bathurst to resolve this matter and no final decision has been made," Jutras said.

"For privacy reasons, we cannot provide the outstanding tax amounts."

No one from the City of Bathurst was made available for an interview.

"The City of Bathurst has long expressed its interest to see the former mill site property being re-purposed for development," Luc Foulem, a city spokesperson, said in an email.

"Our position remains the same today."

Resolution coming by year-end, minister says

The mill site became the focus of discussion in the legislature during budget estimates this month, prompting Finance Minister Ernie Steeves to commit his government to resolving the issue, though offering little in the way of details.

"What the resolution is going to be, I don't want to predict that ahead of time, but we are in talks with the city, and I'm telling you myself that I'm saying it will be settled by the end of the year, so if it isn't, come after me," said Steeves, acknowledging it's "ridiculous" the issue has dragged on more than a decade.

Steeves's response followed questioning from Bathurst West-Beresford MLA René Legacy about the government's process for taking over properties, particularly the mill site, if taxes are owed on it and environmental remediation work is needed.

Zoom/CBC
Zoom/CBC

In an interview this week, Legacy said he's concerned about the fate of the site, given it's been a blight on his hometown for so long.

"I live not too far from that [property] actually. I walk in front of that, that I'll call it this mess, almost on a daily basis," he said.

He said he plans to raise more questions about why the property hasn't been subjected to a tax sale yet, adding that the province is setting "a dangerous precedent" if it really is choosing not to do so in order to avoid the responsibility of cleaning it up.

"Right now, what we do know factually is that property taxes have not been paid on this property, and in New Brunswick if you don't pay your property taxes, then the Finance and Treasury Department can go and seize your property.

"And it's been quite a few years and nothing's been done, so I'm sticking to that point right now as to why this isn't being done."

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