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Premier Legault on defensive about Northvolt project

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Premier François Legault displayed a banana, an orange and an apple on Wednesday to justify a more lenient scientific analysis of the Northvolt battery plant project in Montérégie.

He was reacting to a Radio-Canada report revealing that scientific justifications had disappeared in the Ministry of the Environment's analysis of this controversial project.

The official Liberal opposition considers that these alterations have all the appearance of a "political order" and even evokes a "falsification of documents."

The Parti Québécois is asking the Auditor General to look into the matter, while Québec solidaire (QS) wants to hear from the head of Northvolt.

Radio-Canada's report reveals that the scientific references used a few months earlier in an analysis to reject a real estate project on the same site disappeared in the analysis that approved the Northvolt project.

"These are two totally different projects that cannot be compared," argues the government.

On his way to the cabinet meeting at noon on Wednesday, Legault addressed the parliamentary press with an orange, an apple and a banana in his hands to illustrate his point.

"In the Northvolt dossier, we must not mix a real estate project with an industrial project," he declared.

"It's the same land, yes, which is excessively vast, but we're talking about two different projects with two different locations," Environment Minister Benoit Charette clarified during question period.

The first residential project involved the massive destruction of habitats of interest, while the second preserves them, notably through a financial contribution of $5 million and also by protecting several dozen hectares, he added. He mentioned the example of the Least Bittern, a bird designated as vulnerable, but whose habitat, wetlands, would have been 66 per cent destroyed by the real estate project, whereas in the case of Northvolt, there will be no destruction of its habitat.

"It's starting to smell bad," said Liberal MNA Monsef Derraji, who sees two reports: one containing the scientific arguments the government used to say no to the developer and the other, written by the same person, removing the scientific arguments say yes to Northvolt.

"Who ordered the change in these documents, who ordered the change?" he asked. "It borders on falsification of documents."

"It has all the appearances of a political decision, political pressure that would have been put on the Ministry of the Environment," echoed interim Liberal leader Marc Tanguay at a press briefing. "For us, it has all the appearance of a political order."

The Parti Québécois (PQ) is asking the Auditor General, through the associated Sustainable Development Commissioner, to examine this case of differentiated reporting.

The PQ wants to know "whether the Sustainable Development Act is truly being applied, whether the principles of sustainable development have been taken into account, in particular the strong principle of protecting the environment and biodiversity", explained MNA Joël Arseneau.

Québec solidaire (QS) called for Northvolt CEO Paolo Cerruti to appear before the National Assembly in the name of transparency. Legault dodged the request but invited his opponent, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, to have coffee with Cerruti.

"I've never met a businessman for whom the environment and the energy transition are so important," said Legault. "He did extraordinary things in Germany. He lived in Stockholm. In Sweden, he's appreciated, because he respects the environment."

In a press scrum, the Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon said he was not familiar with the differences between the two analyses by the Ministry of the Environment.

The site in question was originally contaminated, he said, adding that "this was not the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve bit into the apple".

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Feb. 21, 2024.   

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