The story of the bleached kraft pulp mill in Pictou County, which has already dragged on for 53 years, is coming to a nail-biting climax. How — and when — it’s going to end is anyone’s guess.

Time is running out, and two key dates loom.

The first is December 17, 2019, which is the deadline for Nova Scotia environment minister Gordon Wilson to deliver his verdict on Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent treatment facility project.

The other is January 31, 2020. If Premier Stephen McNeil stands firm and respects the Boat Harbour Act that his Liberal government passed in 2015, with unanimous support from opposition parties, the mill’s effluent will no longer be permitted to flow into Boat Harbour after that date.

When Northern Pulp registered its project for a new effluent treatment facility with Nova Scotia Environment on January 31, 2019, its communications director Kathy Cloutier said that without an extension to the legislated deadline, the mill would be forced to shut down. “If we have no barriers or hiccups, then we would be looking for (an extension) in the proximity of a year,” she said at a press conference.

From the day the Boat Harbour Act was passed, Northern Pulp had four years and nearly nine months to plan and get approval for its new treatment system. It might have been able to meet that deadline had it not spent so much time fighting with Nova Scotia Environment over its Industrial Approval.

A quick recap. In 2014, Nova Scotia Environment drew up a new five-year Industrial Approval for the mill, which would have required moderate improvements in how much water the mill used, effluent it produced, and air emissions it released. Northern Pulp decided to fight those. It spent all of 2015 bullying the provincial government into submission, going so far as taking it to court, to get its way and get those improvements removed from its industrial permit. Which it did in early 2016.

So now, just over two months before that Industrial Approval expires and the legislated date for the closure of Boat Harbour, Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence finds itself with no new effluent treatment facility, and its plans for one still undergoing environmental assessment.

Northern Pulp can also blame itself for the delay in that process.

Another recap. The government of Nova Scotia did the company a huge favour when it decided to subject the new effluent treatment plant to a Class I rather than the longer, more thorough and exacting Class II environmental assessment, something Linda Pannozzo wrote about extensively in her Dirty Dealing series. (How the proposal escaped a federal environmental assessment remains a mystery, although Liberal MP for Central Nova, Sean Fraser, told me in October that there had still been “no decision” that “there would not be a federal assessment.”)

Effluent flowing into Boat Harbour at “Point C.” Photo: Joan Baxter

Perhaps Northern Pulp thought that a Class I assessment was going to be a proverbial piece of cake and that it could submit any old thing to Nova Scotia Environment; the environmental assessment documents that it submitted in January 2019 were missing a great deal of information and full of contradictions, some of which I wrote about here.

You don’t need to take my word for it; Nova Scotia Environment received thousands of pages of comments on Northern Pulp’s proposal from government departments and independent experts. Many of them were highly critical, some scathingly so.

In March 2019, then environment minister Margaret Miller sent Northern Pulp back to the drawing board, demanding a focus report to address concerns that were raised about the project’s impacts:

… through public and Mi’kmaq submissions, as well as submissions by Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Health Canada, Public Services and Procurement Canada, Nova Scotia Environment, Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, Department of Lands and Forestry, Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, and so on. 

The concerns about the project covered a lot of areas, including:

…fish and fish habitat, facility design, water resources, air quality, noise, flora and fauna, human health, archaeology, and Mi’kmaq land uses.

Miller named 19 “key deficiencies” in the Northern Pulp proposal, which were to be remedied in the focus report. Given that the province gave Northern Pulp $6 million to do the studies and prepare its submission, the list of deficiencies is startling and worth repeating here because it says so much about the problems with Northern Pulp’s project submission:

  • Lacks characterization details of wastewater to inform potential contaminants of concern
  • Alternative to the overland pipeline routs needed given Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal does not permit the pipeline to be placed on the shoulder of Highway 106 [a loop of the Trans-Canada Highway linking the PEI ferry terminal at Caribou with Highway 104]
  • Lacks marine geotechnical survey to understand the potential impacts of ice formation on the pipeline in the winter, and to confirm marine portion of the pipeline route
  • Lacks information and data to confirm the efficacy of treatment technology
  • Lack effluent flow data to support the proposed peak treatment capacity of 85,000m3 [85 million litres] flow of effluent per day
  • Lacks details for pipeline leak detection and trench lining methodologies
  • Lacks baseline surveys for marine and freshwater fish and fish habitat
  • Lacks baseline surveys for marine water quality and sediment quality
  • Clarification and updates needed regarding the receiving water study for Caribou Harbour
  • Lacks details of assessment and mitigation regarding potential impacts on fish and fish habitat
  • Lacks baseline surveys for other flora and fauna such as plants and birds
  • Lacks wetland baseline surveys along the pipeline route
  • Lacks monitoring methodologies for sensitive areas at risk of pipeline leaks, such as Town of Pictou drinking water supply protection area, below water table, wetlands, and watercourse crossings, and others
  • Lacks full inventory of air contaminants
  • Inadequate air dispersion modelling submitted
  • Lacks adequate assessment on potential impacts on human health
  • Lacks archaeological resource risk assessment for the marine environment
  • Lacks Mi’kmaq ecological knowledge study

You get the picture. Northern Pulp’s submission was shoddy. Very shoddy.

Minister Miller gave the company a year to submit the focus report, and on April 23, Nova Scotia Environment delivered the Terms of Reference for it, detailing 35 things that had to be done.

Northern Pulp worked fast. On October 2, it submitted a 245-page focus report and more than 35 appendices and addenda — a total of more than 2,600 pages.

The public had until November 8 to submit comments, and the minister of environment has until December 17 read all the submissions to make his decision.

Even if he were to approve the new treatment facility, Northern Pulp would still have no place to dispose of its effluent until the facility was completed, because of the Boat Harbour Act. 

Unless, of course, Premier McNeil were to cave to pressure from the mill and those advocating on its behalf — Unifor and the forestry industry — and reconvene the legislature to amend that legislation and extend the closure date.

Chief Andrea Paul stands by a billboard with a message for Premier McNeil and MLAs. Photo: Joan Baxter

And that, for Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul, is unthinkable.

“I’m saying there will not be an extension,” she said on Tuesday this week, just after a panel representing groups critical of Northern Pulp’s proposed treatment facility held a press conference in Pictou. “I think the premier has been very clear on the timeline and what has been required of Northern Pulp, and based on what I’ve heard today, I can’t see how they could ever accept this project as it stands today.”

Minister asked to reject proposal

The organizers of the press conference in Pictou described themselves as “four groups facing major risks from Northern Pulp’s proposed new effluent treatment facility.”

They issued a joint statement saying that they had all reviewed Northern Pulp’s focus report “independently” and found it failed to “meet the terms of reference set out by Nova Scotia Environment,” and that it is still missing critical information “to determine that the project can be carried out without causing significant lasting harm to the environment and/or human health.”

They called on “Environment Minister Gordon Wilson to reject Northern Pulp’s proposal.”

The “four groups” that organized the press conference represent an impressive number and diversity of people.

Left to right: Jim Ryan, Colton Cameron, Jamie Simpson, Jill Graham-Scanlan. Photo: Joan Baxter

Environmental lawyer Jamie Simpson was speaking on behalf of the Fishermen’s Working Group, representing about 3,000 fishermen from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI.

Pictou mayor Jim Ryan was representing, well, the town of Pictou.

Lawyer Jill Graham-Scanlon spoke on behalf of the citizens’ group Friends of the Northumberland Strait (FONS).

On a phone link from Halifax, lawyer Brian Hebert spoke on behalf of Pictou Landing First Nation, which has had to suffer more than half a century with the stench of Boat Harbour — once a pristine tidal estuary called A’se’K (the other room) — in its back yard, and the stench of the mill’s emissions that make their way there on prevailing winds.

Hebert explained to media that the environment minister has three choices. His explanation is a little long, but I include it because he lays out the situation so clearly. According to Hebert, the minister:

… can accept the project, with or without conditions. The minister can reject the project. The minister can also require a full environmental assessment report, and it’s important to understand that the environmental assessment regulations under the Environment Act do set out in Section 18 what the minister has to consider when making his decision. . . So the question at this stage for the minister is whether the focus report has provided the scientific evidence which would allow him to approve the project, being satisfied that whatever conditions he adds to an approval would mitigate any environmental risks.

Hebert continued:

And having examined the focus report, having had EXP consultants, an independent engineering firm, review the focus report, and having met with representatives of five federal departments, whose scientists have reviewed the focus report as well, the Pictou Landing First Nation just cannot see how the minister could possibly entertain the approval of the project at this stage. The science is simply not there. The focus report did not address many of the terms of reference. It simply didn’t give the information that they were asked. And those are details in the reports that we filed, on behalf of Pictou Landing First Nation, with the Department of Environment. 

In Hebert’s view and the view of PLFN, Northern Pulp knew the focus report was insufficient, but is playing a political game:

EXP consultants in almost every instance gave a failing grade as to whether the response in the focus report met what was requested in the terms of reference. So at this stage, Pictou Landing First Nation can only conclude that the focus report was rushed, and it was meant to be filed within a certain deadline, so that anything at all could be put before the minister in the hopes that the minister would grant an approval with many, many, many conditions. The minister could grant an approval with almost a hundred conditions, and we would still have serious concerns. 

But that appears to be the tack and the tactic that the owners of the mill have taken. And we suspect it was because of statements that were made by the premier back in July when he said that if the project receives an environmental approval, if it’s an environmentally sound project, he would have to consider that. Which would only mean that he may be considering that if the project is approved by the minister of environment extending the deadline for the closure of the Boat Harbour treatment facility, which Pictou Landing First Nation obviously opposes. 

So in our view, Northern Pulp rushed the focus report, [and] hasn’t provided the scientific basis, which would give the minister any comfort whatsoever to issue an approval. And they’ve done so in order to play a political game here. And in our view, they got caught out and the focus report is simply insufficient, and the minister has no choice, he cannot approve the project under any circumstances based on the current focus report. 

Critics’ case

Northern Pulp is proposing that the treated effluent, up to 85 million litres a day, would flow nearly 15 kilometres through a pipeline nearly a metre in diameter, which would cross Pictou Harbour beside the causeway, then run overland alongside Highway 106 to Caribou Harbour where the PEI ferry docks, and another four kilometres into the Northumberland Strait.

Pictou mayor Jim Ryan said that focus report had still not addressed the town’s original concerns about the “unacceptable” risks that the effluent pipeline poses to the town’s water. Also not addressed were the town’s concerns about air emissions should Northern Pulp be permitted to burn the sludge from the proposed activated sludge treatment facility.

Citing the extensive findings of independent expert reviewers, Jamie Simpson said the focus report limited its modelling to only a one-month period and failed to look at the longer-term cumulative effects of the effluent, a complex mix of chemicals, many known to be toxic to aquatic life. He also said there had been no proper baseline survey done to evaluate the impacts the effluent would have or adequate description of the composition of the effluent, which were required by the terms of reference.

Simpson pointed out that the 30-day period permitted for public comment was “incredibly tight,” not nearly long enough for the public to go through the thousands of pages of documents. He said they requested an extension with Nova Scotia Environment, but it was denied.

He also highlighted the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal finding that the province cannot provide an impartial assessment on the project, given that it is both the investor in the project because of contractual agreements with Northern Pulp, and the regulator, which puts the government it in a conflict of interest (which I wrote about here).

Graham-Scanlon said that independent experts engaged by the fishermen and FONS found “major gaps and fundamental flaws” in the focus report, and pointed out that the proposal failed to include any leak detection for the marine portion of the pipe, or what kind of leak detection would be used on land.

Northern Pulp has a dismal record when it comes to pipeline leaks and spills, and in 2014 pled guilty when charged by the federal government for one that spewed 47 million litres of effluent onto sacred Mi’kmaq burial grounds, which resulted in a fine of $225,000.

It took pumps and pumper trucks nearly two weeks to remove the spilled effluent from ditches and marshes after Northern Pulp’s pipe broke in October 2018 on Indian Cross Point, a sacred Mi’kmaq burial ground. Photo: Joan Baxter

The most recent pipeline break occurred on October 21, 2018. More than a year later, Nova Scotia Environment has still has not completed an investigation into that spill.

Fisherman Colton Cameron is also concerned by the possibility of a leak or rupture if Northern Pulp is permitted to run its effluent pipeline into the Northumberland Strait. Speaking at the Pictou press conference, he said the focus report is “completely inaccurate” about the fisheries, and that Northern Pulp failed to look at historical data on ice in the Strait, which would create intense stresses on a pipe. Without any leak detection on the marine portion of the Strait, Cameron said there would be no way of knowing if a pipe broke under the ice and was leaking into Caribou Harbour, which is just three feet deep in places and has poor flushing capabilities.

Rough ice in the Northumberland Strait near Caribou. Photo: Joan Baxter
Colton Cameron on The Red Trapper at proposed pipeline outfall in Northumberland Strait. Photo: Joan Baxter

After the press conference, Cameron joined journalists on an excursion on the boat of Allan MacCarthy, the Red Trapper, out into the Northumberland Strait to the location of the proposed outfall for the mill’s effluent, four kilometres from Caribou.

Allan MacCarthy skippers The Red Trapper to the site of the proposed pipeline outfall. Photo: Joan Baxter

While MacCarthy piloted us through the choppy waters, Cameron continued to list problems that he identified in the focus report. He said it doesn’t provide the exact route of the marine portion of the pipeline, even though the terms of reference required this information.

A monitor on the The Red Trapper shows the pipe outfall site with a red square and the boat location with arrow. Photo: Joan Baxter
PEI ferry Confederation as seen from the pipe outfall location. Photo: Joan Baxter

Cameron also said that he and others fish lobster in the location of the proposed diffuser at the end of the pipeline, and that Northern Pulp’s focus report is “wrong” in saying there is no lobster fishing within two kilometres of the pipeline outfall, a claim based on a three-day aerial survey. According to Cameron, the report also erroneously claims that rock crab are fished only up to depth of 10 metres, and that the outfall location is not a herring spawning area.

“Anyone who’s fished herring knows we’ve caught herring there,” he said. “So it’s a spawning ground all around the diffuser location.”

Cameron noted that the proposed pipeline and diffuser are within a marine refuge, which is a one-nautical-mile buffer zone from shore, where scallop dragging — or any activity that might damage the seafloor — is prohibited.

“Everyone is talking about jobs,” said Cameron. “North Nova Seafoods is right there in this harbour and I think at the height of their employment this summer they had something like 140 people hired at their plant. If he doesn’t have clean water, he can’t operate.”

“Our government officials said that they were going to base their decision on science,” he said. “And looking at the science in this report, and the lack thereof, there’s no way they can go ahead with this project.”

What next?

PLFN Chief Andrea Paul told me she continues to have faith that Premier McNeil will not break his word and betray the Mi’kmaq community by amending the Boat Harbour Act.

I asked what she thought would happen if the project were to be approved, and if the government were to grant Northern Pulp the extension it has requested for the use of Boat Harbour.

“I think it would be such a huge outcry coming from a lot of different directions,” she replied. “It’s going to be a huge group of people coming together to protest.”

Paul said she can envision a large blockade at Indian Cross Point, where the 2014 and 2018 pipeline spills happened, and the blockade would extend all the way to Boat Harbour, well over a kilometre away.

So I think that road [Highway 348] would be blockaded, which would inconvenience the people that live around there. I picture a huge number of people coming out. You know in 2014 [after the pipe broke] we might have had about 100 people [in the blockade] to contain that. If this were to happen [an extension of the Boat Harbour Act], I’m thinking of a much bigger number, coming from a more global area. 

Paul told me she is encouraged by the strong messages coming from the different groups that the effluent treatment facility project “cannot be accepted” as it is.  She said that while PLFN is looking at all its options — legal and others — and has a Plan A, B, and C in the eventuality that the project is approved and an extension granted for the mill’s use of Boat Harbour, she hopes it doesn’t get to that point.

“Our hope is that this government will continue being as strong as they were back in 2015,” she said, “[so] we don’t even need to consider these [options].

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

1 Comment

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.