Northern Pulp pleaded guilty Wednesday to a charge under the federal Fisheries Act stemming from a 2014 effluent spill.

Lawyers for the federal Environment Department and the mill arrived at Pictou provincial court with an agreed statement of facts and prepared to enter the plea and seek a sentence from Judge Del Atwood.

However, Atwood refused to render a sentence until the Pictou Landing First Nation was consulted about the effect the spill had on the band.

“The concern I have is courts have typically taken into account community impact in pollution-related offences,” Atwood told the lawyers.

“I cannot simply ignore the long history between (the mill’s operators) and the Pictou Landing First Nation.”

The decision to demand consultation appeared to take federal government lawyer Paul Adams and defence attorney Harvey Morrison by surprise.

“There is no clear legal basis,” Adams told the judge of his requirement for consultation.

“I would like some direction.”

In the end, Adams told Atwood that he would direct federal investigators to contact the First Nation to discuss the spill. All parties will return to court Feb. 24 to seek a sentence.

“I think this is a responsible decision by the judge,” Pictou Landing Chief Andrea Paul said in a statement sent to media.

“First Nations want to be consulted when it comes to protection of our resources.”

The charge stemmed from a rupture of a pipe carrying raw effluent from the kraft pulp mill at Abercrombie Point to its treatment facility adjacent to the First Nation. At the time, the province’s Environment Department estimated over 4.5 million litres of untreated waste poured into a wetland and, from there, into Pictou Harbour.

Because the effluent ultimately flowed into the ocean, which falls under federal jurisdiction, the charge of having unlawfully deposited or having permitted the deposit of a deleterious substance in water frequented by fish was laid by Environment Canada rather than by the province.

The leak and the way it was handled by the company sparked a blockade by the Pictou Landing First Nation. A deal was brokered by the province that saw the First Nation end its blockade, the pipe get repaired and the government pass legislation promising to close the Boat Harbour treatment site by 2020.