The Northern Pulp mill stacks belching grey smoke and steam. Photo by Dr. Gerry Farrell
Northern Pulp Mill (book cover photo from Joan Baxter’s Book, The Mill). Photo courtesy of Dr. Gerry Farrell Credit: Dr. Gerry Farrell

A new study shows that in spite of the many claims over the years that it was cleaning up its environmental act, and in spite of the $28 million it received in 2011 from the “green transformation program” of Conservative government of Stephen Harper to do so, when it came to air pollution, the Northern Pulp mill in Nova Scotia really was in a league of its own.

It wasn’t a good league.

The study, published in the international peer-reviewed journal Pollutants, shows that from 2002 until 2019, the amounts of fine particulate matter emitted by Northern Pulp were a staggering 100,000% higher than the federal government’s reporting threshold of 0.3 tonnes per year.

Fine particulate matter is carcinogenic. Because the fine particles can get deep into lungs and enter the bloodstream, exposure to particulate matter can lead to “premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, and increased respiratory symptoms.”

The paper, authored by Master’s student Gianina Giacosa and associate professors Daniel Rainham and Tony Walker at Dalhousie University, together with Codey Barnett of Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change, compared the annual emissions of seven different air pollutants from nine pulp and / or paper mills in Atlantic Canada.

This map from the new study featured in this article shows the location of the 9 pulp mills in the Atlantic provinces whose emissions were compared. The mills are in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
Map from Giacosa et al. in Pollutants, 2022

The pollutants the authors looked at were carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, total particulate matter, fine particulate matter (PM2.5), coarse particulate matter (PM10), sulphur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds.

They found that overall, the annual releases of these pollutants were “several orders of magnitude higher than federal reporting thresholds suggested by Environment and Climate Change Canada.”

But of all the nine mills and for all the pollutants they looked at, Northern Pulp had the ignominious distinction of exceeding federal reporting thresholds by the greatest amount with its PM2.5 emissions.

Related: Dirty Dealing Part 3: Elevated Levels of Cancer-Causing Air Emissions Coming from Abercrombie Pulp Mill, Peer-Reviewed Study Reveals

Related: Dalhousie researcher breaks silence over pulp mill’s cancer-causing air emissions

A national inventory of pollutants

All companies and organizations that emit pollutants into the air, water, or land above specific thresholds are obliged to report their annual emissions to Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI).

The NPRI data feed into the Air Pollutant Emission Inventory, which reports air emissions for 17 pollutants.

However, Environment and Climate Change Canada recommends thresholds for annual emissions of only two pollutants — fine particulate matter and sulphur dioxide — in the “Code of Practice for the Management of Air Emissions from Pulp and Paper Facilities.”

Giacosa and her co-authors note that while pulp and paper industries “emit large amounts of atmospheric pollutants and greenhouse gases,” the latter being responsible for climate change, relatively few studies look at how much the pulp industry contributes to the concentrations of hazardous air emissions.

From their findings, it looks as if the contribution is substantial.

According to the study, “Pulp and paper processing is an intensive energy consuming process that produces multiple contaminants that pollute water, air, and affect ecological and human health.”

In Canada, they write, “There are 102 pulp, paper, board, and / or tissue mills in operation or which have been temporarily closed.”

They find that pulp mills appear to release more pollutants than paper mills.

The authors note that the Northern Pulp mill is one of the most controversial pulp mills in Atlantic Canada, and that there has long been concern about health issues and unpleasant odours from the mill, which opened in 1967, and only closed in 2020 after failing to get environmental approval for its proposed effluent treatment facility.

Related: The Pictou mill — fleecing Nova Scotia for 53 years — and counting

The new study is telling and timely, coming just as Northern Pulp and its owners, Paper Excellence Canada and Hervey Investment B.V. (Netherlands), are dragging the province into the British Columbia Supreme Court for an unwanted mediation process to settle claims for damages the companies claim Nova Scotia has caused to them.

Related: Northern Pulp and its wealthy owners seem intent on taking Nova Scotians to the cleaners

A “major emitter”

The paper details the annual releases of seven pollutants reported by all nine mills, and shows that Northern Pulp often led the pack when it came to pollution over the 17-year period between 2002 and 2019.

From 2002 to 2007, for example, Northern Pulp was the highest emitter of carbon monoxide (CO), at more than 3,000 tonnes per year, compared with the other mills that emitted less than 2,000 tonnes annually. Then after 2016, Northern Pulp again became a major emitter of CO, along with the Atholville mill near Campbellton, NB.

Giacosa et al. also write that from 2002 to 2015 (with the exception of 2006), Northern Pulp was the “major emitter” of fine particulate matter.

While Northern Pulp emitted an average of 994.4 tonnes of PM2.5 a year during this time, the average for all the other mills was just 174.1 tonnes.

But Northern Pulp didn’t just emit fine particulate matter.

From 2016 to 2019, the eight other mills emitted less than 120 tonnes of coarse particulate matter (PM10), while Northern Pulp emitted 127, 149, 172, and 240 tonnes respectively for those years.

According to the authors, “The mean of TPM, PM10, and PM2.5 in NP [Northern Pulp] is approximately 10 times higher for the three pollutants in comparison with the rest of the mills. It is interesting to note that the lowest release of TPM in NP is higher than the median release in the rest of the mills.”

The authors state that Northern Pulp “consistently reported higher thresholds for all pollutants, especially prior to 2017,” before a new precipitator was installed. And in some years, the emissions of particulate matter were “as much as 100,000% above the reporting PM thresholds.”

Further, they write, “From 2017, NP emissions still exceeded reporting threshold by about 20,000% on average across all pollutants.”

Local populations at risk

The new paper points out that all the mills in Atlantic Canada are in or near urban areas, and that their air emissions are well above the reporting thresholds recommended by the federal government for the National Pollutant Release Inventory for several pollutants.

According to the study, this means “local populations (including mill workers) are regularly exposed to air pollutants emitted by mills regardless of prevailing winds.”

A Pictou Landing First Nation fishing boat in Pictou Harbour with other fishers at the No Pipe rally in July 2018, with the Northern Pulp mill they are protesting belching emissions behind them.
The July 2018 #NOPIPE land-and-sea rally against the Northern Pulp mill plans to pipe effluent into the Northumberland Strait. Photo Gerard J. Halfyard

Nor have any of the mills they studied “significantly reduced their mean annual air emissions … in the 17 years of analysis,” which the authors say has occurred in other facilities.

The only exception, they write, is Northern Pulp that reduced its particulate matter emissions after installing a new precipitator, but that only brought its PM emissions down to levels comparable with those of other mills in Atlantic Canada.

The authors point out that the emissions limits recommended by the Code of Practice for the Management of Air Emissions from Pulp and Paper Facilities remain voluntary, and that on average, between 2002 and 2019 Northern Pulp surpassed the threshold for total particulate matter by about 100%.

The thresholds, they conclude, seem to have no influence on actual emissions levels.

In 2017, I asked an environmental program officer with the National Pollutant Release Inventory how the thresholds were established, and what criteria were used. The officer avoided addressing the question directly, saying only, “It is important to note that these thresholds are not used to determine acceptable levels of pollutants released to the environment, but only to determine if facilities are required to report to the NPRI.”[1]

A 2015 study by Emma Hoffman et al, which looked at public perception and environmental compliance at the Northern Pulp mill, noted that “no federal or provincial standards for these emissions thresholds exist, highlighting that industry standards are insufficient.”

“Additionally, NPRI reported that values are industry estimates, which raises questions about monitoring accuracy and whether excessive emission rates pose real environmental or human health impacts.”

No Clean Air Act in Nova Scotia

In 2016, Karla MacFarlane, then Progressive Conservative MLA for Pictou West and now Minister of L’nu Affairs and of Community Services, introduced a private member’s bill, the Clean Air Act, in the Nova Scotia legislature. It made it only to First Reading.

So even today, Nova Scotia has no provincial law that sets limits for the emission of air pollutants and has only regulations that set permissible ground level concentrations, and cap total emissions of only sulfur dioxide. There is no cap on total particulate matter in the regulations.

The provincial government sets allowable limits for some pollutants from industrial facilities in individual operating approvals.

However, even though Northern Pulp regularly exceeded the annual limits placed on its emissions of fine particulate matter by its industrial approval, and knowingly operated the mill for years with a non-functioning scrubber on its power boiler that reduces PM emissions, only once in all that time was the mill fined.

In 2016, the province imposed a fine on Northern Pulp for $697.50 for failing its stack tests. Even that fine was later retracted.

This certainly jibes with the findings of the new study on annual air emissions by pulp and paper mills in Atlantic Canada and how this pollution is — and also is not — monitored and regulated.

Giacosa and her co-authors conclude:

In summary, the existence of limits in air emissions is confusing and too flexible. Industries that do not follow recommendations or that are high emitters are not punished in most of the cases.

This photo shows the lead author of the study, Gianina Giascosa, standing in front of some lovely waterfalls.
Gianina Giacosa. Photo: Lorena Rojas Credit: Lorena Rojas

In an email to the Halifax Examiner, lead author Gianina Giacosa says she believes there is a need for transparency about what levels of air pollution are safe enough for human and environmental health. But, she adds:

The only tool that we found that mentions upper emission thresholds in the Code of Practice for the Management of Air Emissions from Pulp and Paper Facilities, but those are only recommendations and are not reinforced. Why they are not mandatory I don’t know, but I think they should be. And not only for two pollutants; there are other pollutants apart from particulate matter and sulfur dioxide, like nitrogen oxides, which are also harmful and should be limited.

Giacosa also offers her personal thoughts on what she’s learned about the Northern Pulp mill:

In my home country Uruguay, a third pulp plant is being built and it is one of the biggest ones in South America. Although the decision of installing a new mill was controversial, many people were in favour of it as we tend to welcome and support international investments (even more than local investments as Uruguayans assume that everything that is imported is better). So, I assumed that a pulp facility in Canada would follow the most rigorous sustainability practices taking care of the environment and respecting the local population, working as a facility in a “developed” country should work. And I was really shocked when I start to read about the history of the mill in Pictou. It is sad to think that the history could be repeated in “developing countries” that desperately seek international investment to grow.


[1] More detail on Northern Pulp submissions to the National Pollutant Release Inventory can be found in my 2017 book, “The Mill – Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.”

Subscribe to the Halifax Examiner

We have many other subscription options available, or drop us a donation. Thanks!

Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website:; Twitter @joan_baxter

Join the Conversation


Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.
  1. This whole saga just keeps going from bad to worse.

    They better keep this damn thing shut.

  2. Scientifically we should be so far beyond allowing these releases of pollutants. The risks associated with them to both human and ecological health have been well established for decades.
    Political jerry rigging of the system in NS (and many other parts of the country) is the only thing that has allowed this to keep happening with impunity.
    The true wealth (not the pittance given to workers and paid in taxes) made by a business like this does not stay in NS. It goes elsewhere. To owners, shareholders etc in other parts of the world. We all pay the price to line the pockets of the ultra wealthy.

  3. Thank you Halifax Examiner for staying on this Poison Northern Pulp Mill!! This mill and it’s supporters are always placing blame on everyone else but themselves. The reason they were closed is because they were not compliant to environmental rules, and because they always operated for years not needing to be in compliance regulations, they truly believe they have no responsibility for their closer. It’s unbelievable!!