On Thursday morning, acting environment minister Mark Furey issued an order stating Northern Pulp is not allowed to restart operations until its new precipitator is up and running.

On Thursday afternoon, Northern Pulp general manager Bruce Chapman said the Pictou County mill was never planning to restart until after the machinery that removes harmful particles from the air is operational.

“It was not a surprise,” said Chapman. “We have no doubt of our ability to meet the conditions of this order.”

So why issue the order at all?

According to Furey, it was a simple matter of regulatory housecleaning.

The department issued an order last August requiring that the Abercrombie Point mill have the precipitator up and running by the beginning of June. Furey said Thursday that the old order was about to expire, so a new one was required to ensure “the mill operators are aware of government’s position and expectations going forward.”

Northern Pulp is installing the $20-million electrostatic precipitator to bring its emissions into compliance with federal regulations. Tests over the past two years revealed its stacks were emitting too much particulate matter 2.5 — small burnt chemicals less than 2.5 microns in diameter that can penetrate the inner lining of the lungs and affect human health.

A precipitator puts an electric charge into the burnt chemicals, which are then attracted to panels as they flow up the smokestack so that they are not pumped into the air.

In March, the project hit a speed bump when Clyde Bergemann Power Group told Northern Pulp that it was pulling out of its contract to install the precipitator. Northern Pulp has continued the installation itself.

“We expect it will make a huge improvement in air quality,” said Chapman.

The mill will shut down Saturday for its annual maintenance work, which brings about 600 contractors into the mill over some 14 days. The shutdown will be extended until the installation of the precipitator is complete, which should be by the end of June, he said.

While the precipitator removes harmful particulate matter, it will have little effect on the esthetics of the plant.

The billowing clouds above the smokestack won’t be affected because they are mainly steam, said Chapman. As well, the strong sulphur smell that wafts through areas of Pictou County depending on wind direction won’t be affected by the precipitator.

The plant has come under significant criticism over the past year from local business people, private residents and the Pictou Landing First Nation over both its air and effluent emissions.

Matt Gunning, a Pictou businessman and a member of the Clean the Mill group, said Thursday that he is mainly concerned with the particulate matter because it has been declared a carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

“We understand you can’t just fire the new precipitator up and magically have it work,” said Gunning.

“But we want to make sure they don’t allow unreasonable timelines to get it into compliance.”

A new industrial approval announced last month by the Environment Department will require Northern Pulp to decrease its water consumption and effluent production over the coming years. The industrial approval also requires that the waste-water treatment facility at Boat Harbour, which is owned by the province but used by the mill, be closed by 2020.

Both the mill and the community group Clean Pictou Air have appealed the industrial approval, one saying it goes too far and the other saying it doesn’t go far enough.

Furey said the government would rule on the appeals by June 9.