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Smelly shellfish plant to stay open: minister

New Brunswick's environment minister is allowing a smelly shellfish plant to keep running, arguing a lawsuit launched by a concerned citizens group is behind the reason the company can't clean up its act faster.

Gary Crossman said on Friday he has renewed Coastal Shell Products' approval to operate until Aug. 31 of next year, despite missing a Nov. 30 deadline to install technology to help reduce the stink that's disgusted residents of Richibucto, a small community of about 1,400 between Moncton and Miramichi near the eastern coast.

"Due to the ongoing court case, the approval to operate will be extended," the minister said during question period. "It will give the company lots of time to put this in place. It is my understanding that, since the coalition has taken the company to court, the financing has been held up because, certainly, nobody wants to invest money if the business is going to stop tomorrow. We are giving the company the chance to move ahead."

Fury over decision Contacted by Brunswick News, Omer Gaudet, who co-owns Coastal Shell, said he was in meetings Friday and too busy to talk. His company did not return messages.

But a representative of the Kent Clean Air Action Committee was furious with the minister's decision.

"Once again, the minister is making it out like it's our fault," said Maisie Rae McNaughton, who lives near the plant. "We had no choice but to take this to court because the Department of Environment is unwilling to side with the people."

The committee applied for an injunction for the plant to stop operations in a case heard by Court of Kings Bench Justice Christa Bourque in Moncton on Nov. 10. Given the number of documents and many arguments in the case, she reserved her decision.

Complaints about bad odour from the plant, which first opened in 2016, have persisted, despite various orders from the department. McNaughton said the department has registered about a thousand complaints over the last several years, and when her group holds meetings or protests, dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people show up to voice their complaints about the smell.

"We can't enjoy a normal life.

We can't go outside past 8 p.m. if the wind is blowing in our direction. Our sleep cycle is interrupted. Our tourism industry is almost non-existent. We can't sell our houses when we want to," she said. "The ambient odour was so bad this past Sunday, even though the plant was not operating, I could smell it from my house a kilometre and a half away."

More testing to be done

Crossman said the department is conducting tests to see how bad the problem is and in the meantime the plant will continue to process old lobster, crab and shrimp shells for about two weeks overnight before shutting down for the season till next spring.

He hopes the proper equipment will be installed by then. He said two of three pieces of equipment, including a scrubber, haven't been installed yet because the company hasn't secured the money to buy them.

"The company's not operating between Christmas and the spring because there's no fishing season," he told reporters. "It needs to be up and operating to do further environmental testing later, but the third and final part is the big one. That's the one that reduces emissions that will hopefully good to go."

Protecting jobs and the industry is important, Crossman added, although even he acknowledged Coastal Shell hasn't created as much employment as originally promised. The company says 26 people work there, but most of them are seasonal only.

Once a factory operated by Seagram, where workers made Captain Morgan's rum, the building eventually became a tomato processing facility before becoming what the company calls a "state of the art" crustacean shell drying facility. The 30,000-square-foot factory specializes in the drying of shell waste from the fishing industry and selling the product worldwide as fertilizer and animal feed.

In question period and with reporters afterward, Crossman was quick to point out that it was the previous Liberal government that helped with the conversion, providing $2.9 million to the company, which is now co-owned by Gaudet, Stephane Boudreau, Denis Albert and Louis Bourgeois.

McNaughton said none of the men live in her community.

Liberal Opposition Leader Susan Holt said the plant should cease to operate.

"They've had time after time after time to reduce the odour and the noise. They say they'll try and the government renews their licence and nothing changes. When is enough, enough? Why isn't it three strikes and you're out?"

Jobs that didn't happen

She admitted, however, that the previous Liberal government in which she served as an adviser to Premier Brian Gallant shouldn't have allowed the plant. At the time, the company was supposed to create more than 70 jobs.

"It seems misplaced, right next to homes and schools and seniors'facilities," Holt said. "I was not involved in the file and was not in the department that authorized it, but I believe that they had committed and submitted environmental impact assessments that said there will not be smells and noise, but that has proven to not be the case. So, promises they made in 2016 that were broken, there should be consequences for that."

The plant is in the riding of Green MLA Kevin Arseneau, who didn't pull any punches.

"The minister has lied to the population of the Richibucto region," he told reporters. "And he's lied to me. It was very clear that coming this 30th of November, if they had not made the investments necessary that he would not sign the permit. And he has signed the permit."

A farmer, Arseneau is familiar with people's complaints about the smell of manure and noisy tractors. But he said you couldn't compare a plant in an urban area with what he does in the fields.

He said the controversy was a zoning issue.

"You would not put a hog farm beside a school," he said. "This is a regional planning issue. Now, when you talk about the jobs, I've always said this plant has the right to exist. It's just not in the right spot. If they want to move, they are invited to do so and keep those jobs."

John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Gleaner