Two Signs at entrance to Northern Pulp mill saying Welcome to Our Mill. Both signs are white with blue and black font. they're sitting in some tall grass and in the background are trees.
The entrance to the Northern Pulp mill on Abercrombie Point is also on a rail line that ends at the site of the former Canso Chemicals plant, right beside the mill. Photo: Joan Baxter

Northern Pulp is using $450,000 dollars to sue Nova Scotians for what could be hundreds of millions of dollars, and the money for the litigation comes from the interim financing its creditor protection in the British Columbia Supreme Court affords it.

But the Paper Excellence company doesn’t seem interested in spending any money to put in a treatment facility beside its hibernating pulp mill on Abercrombie Point to handle the wastewater on the site.

Instead, Northern Pulp is shipping the wastewater to the Central Colchester Wastewater Treatment Facility in Lower Truro.

And yet, right beside the moribund mill, the Canso Chemicals plant that was mothballed in the 1990s, has put up a treatment facility for the surface runoff from its site.

Before the Boat Harbour treatment facility was closed in January 2020, and the pulp mill went into hibernation, wastewater from the Northern Pulp property and the Canso Chemicals site beside the mill was diverted into the pipeline that carried the pulp effluent — 90 million litres of it per day — across the East River, and then overland for about a kilometer to Boat Harbour.

Photo shows a pumper truck sucking up pulp effluent that leaked from a break in the Northern Pulp effluent pipeline in 2018 on Indian Cross Point, Pictou County, Nova Scotia. The road is a dirt rural road with trees and brush on either side. The pumper truck has a teal blue tank and the pump itself is hanging off to the left.
A pumper truck cleaning up brown wastewater from a break in the Northern Pulp mill effluent pipeline in 2018 during a mill shutdown. Photo: Joan Baxter

With the pipeline now gone, Canso Chemicals and Northern Pulp have to find other ways to deal with the surface water that accumulates on their industrial sites.

As the Halifax Examiner reported here, Northern Pulp negotiated an attractive arrangement for itself with the Municipality of the Council of Colchester to dispose of its wastewater — landfill leachate and stormwater — in the Colchester facility that empties into the Salmon River, which in turn runs into Cobequid Bay in the inner Bay of Fundy.

A 2020 Ministerial Order mandated the company use an “Approved” facility to treat the wastewater.

However, Canso Chemicals found another option. According to Tracy Barron, spokesperson for Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change (NSECC), Canso Chemicals installed a “treatment unit for site runoff (surface water)” in May this year.

“The volume is weather dependent,” Barron told the Examiner. “The company tests the site runoff (including for mercury) and has not discharged any treated site runoff into the environment at this time. Canso Chemicals has an Industrial Approval to discharge the treated site runoff into the East River if the analysis meets the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment criteria. To this point, it has not met the criteria and has been shipped to a third-party facility for additional treatment.”

Barron did not explain why the treated wastewater did not meet CCME criteria.

She noted that Canso Chemicals, is “not subject to any ministerial orders.”

The Examiner sought clarification from Barron, asking:

  1. Does NSECC monitor where the treated surface water from the Canso Chemicals site goes for additional treatment?
  2. What kind of treatment facility is needed for treated material that does not meet CCME (Canadian Council Ministers of the Environment) criteria? Which ones in NS can do so [treat this kind of material]?
  3. Would the Central Colchester Wastewater Treatment Facility be one that could treat material / liquid that doesn’t meet CCME criteria? (If not, why not?)?
  4. As the treated runoff is being tested for mercury, has analysis shown if any mercury has been detected in it?
  5. Does NSECC know why the treated runoff doesn’t meet CCME criteria? If so, why doesn’t it?
  6. Can NSECC confirm that the Canso Chemicals runoff is not mixed with the NP wastewater for treatment at the Central Colchester facility?

Barron sent this reply:

The Department monitors what the treated surface water contains and where it goes for additional treatment. The receiving facility — whether it is the Central Colchester Wastewater Treatment Facility or another facility — depends on the parameters requiring treatment. Canso Chemicals manages its own site runoff separate from Northern Pulp and is responsible for its own testing program. For questions on test results you should contact the  company.

So, not all that edifying.

We still don’t know why the treated runoff from Canso Chemicals doesn’t meet the CCME guidelines, if mercury has been detected in it, what kind of treatment plant is needed for such material, how many — if any — of these there are in Nova Scotia, or where the treated material is going for treatment.

The silence is deafening

As for contacting the company, the Halifax Examiner has repeatedly called a telephone number — 902-755-1785 — that appears in a Google search for Canso Chemicals, which is said to be “permanently closed.” We left a message asking that our call be returned, but that has not happened.

As the Examiner reported in March 2019:

Canso Chemicals is an entity of the Olin Corporation, a “leading U.S. manufacturer of ammunition” and global supplier of chemicals. No stranger to Canada, the Olin Corporation’s Winchester Division has won numerous tenders to supply armaments to the federal government, and in 2009 won a contract to sell $420,313 worth of guns to the federal penitentiary in Dorchester, NB.

At that time, an Olin spokesperson told the Examiner that Olin acquired Canso Chemicals in 2007, when it acquired the assets of PCI Canada ULC.

For this article, the Examiner again emailed the Olin Corporation, which as recently as December 2018 reported that it owned 50% of Canso Chemicals, with Northern Pulp owning the other half.

Questions were also emailed to Northern Pulp to ask about, among other things, the Canso Chemical runoff and its treatment.

Neither Olin nor Northern Pulp has replied to the questions, which are listed in two endnotes.[1] [2]

On November 4, the Examiner again emailed Northern Pulp to request answers, and also asked if the company had plans to construct a treatment facility for the leachate and runoff at the mill site, and if not, why not?

Again, there was no reply.

Why, you may well ask, does it matter what happens to the wastewater and runoff that is accumulating on Abercrombie Point around the hibernating pulp mill and the long-since mothballed Canso Chemicals plant?

Let’s have a quick look at who the players are, and why the public has a right to be concerned that it is so difficult to get straight answers to simple questions about what is happening on Abercrombie Point.

Citizen sleuthing

The Canso Chemicals treatment unit first came to light when David McNeill, an engaged and inquisitive citizen on all things Northern Pulp, posted about it on November 1, 2021, on the Clean up the Pictou County Pulp Mill Facebook page.

McNeill had been studying documents from the BC Supreme Court where Northern Pulp and eight of its affiliates went to seek creditor protection in June 2020, and have been extending it ever since. (The Examiner has reported extensively on the creditor protection case, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Northern Pulp’s initial application for creditor protection on June 19, 2020 states that “The business of the petitioners [seven Northern Pulp affiliates are petitioners in the creditor protection case] is managed by PEC [Paper Excellence Canada].

McNeill noticed that the 8th Monitor Report to the Court stated that there had been discussion between NSECC about whether ditching was required around the site of the former Canso Chemicals plant, which is adjacent to the hibernating mill. He wrote to a Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change staff member to ask if a decision had been made about the ditch.

A NSECC staff member replied that Canso Chemicals had installed its own treatment plant in May 2021, and that Canso Chemicals operated the plant. She added that if it met CCME criteria, it “gets discharged to the East River/Pictou Harbour,” and if not, it is shipped to “a facility that is approved to deal with the parameter(s) in excess of CCME.”

McNeill then shared this information on Facebook and with the Halifax Examiner.

The NSECC staff member said that to her knowledge, Northern Pulp was not sending any wastewater to the Canso Chemicals treatment system, and there was “no involvement or agreements” with Northern Pulp.

Which is odd, given that — as mentioned above — as recently as December 2018 the Olin Corporation reported that Northern Pulp owned 50% of Canso Chemicals.

Paper Excellence exec also on Canso Chemicals board

The Nova Scotia Registry of Joint Stocks shows that the president of the Canso Chemicals board is Pierre Ducharme, Olin plant manager in Bécancour, Québec.

However, the Registry also shows that one of the directors Canso Chemicals is Choong Wei Tan, who is very much part of Paper Excellence and the Northern Pulp family.

Northern Pulp’s initial application to the court states that “Tan Choong Wei (also known as Robin Tan)” is “the sole Director of the Petitioners and PEC [Paper Excellence Canada].”

The application includes NS Registry of Joint Stocks pages showing that Tan Choong Wei is also a director of Northern Timber Nova Scotia Corporation, 3243722 Nova Scotia Limited, 3253527 Nova Scotia Limited, Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Corporation, and Northern Resources Nova Scotia Corporation.

So it seems unlikely that any discussions about ditching around Canso Chemicals and the disposal of surface water around its property would not be closely followed by Northern Pulp and Paper Excellence.

It is more than a little perplexing that Canso Chemicals, which doesn’t intend to open up again, is willing to put in a plant to treat runoff from its site, while Northern Pulp that is claiming it wants to transform and re-open the pulp mill on Abercrombie Point, would rather truck its wastewater 70 kilometres to the Central Colchester Wastewater Treatment Facility than establish a treatment facility to handle it on site.

And it is more than a little worrisome that no one — not Nova Scotia Environment or the companies involved — is willing to answer questions about whether mercury has been found in the wastewater being collected for treatment.

A mercurial problem

Nearly two years ago, the Halifax Examiner did a deep dive into the Canso Chemicals story (here and here).

Map from the 2000 Dillon report on Canso Chemical decommissioning. The map is black and white and shows the site location as a yellow dot close to the right-side of t he map.
Map from the 2000 Dillon report on Canso Chemical decommissioning.
Detail from map from 2000 Dillon Consulting report on the decommissioning of Canso Chemicals, Abercrombie Point, Pictou County, Nova Scotia
Detail from the above map.

The March 7, 2019 article, headlined “The Canso Chemicals mystery: With the chemical plant long gone, why is the company still alive? And what about all that mercury pollution?” included the following background:

For two decades Canso Chemicals produced chlorine for the pulping process at a site adjacent to the pulp mill on Abercrombie Point in Pictou County, but when new pulp and paper effluent regulations came into effect in 1992, the mill switched to chlorine dioxide. No longer needed, the chemical plant was closed.

And:

In 2000, Dillon Consulting submitted a report entitled “Canso Chemicals Site Decommissioning Final Report” to the general manager of Canso Chemicals Limited, and cc’ed to Pioneer Chemicals Limited. The report says that Canso Chemicals had operated its chlor-alkali plant on Abercrombie Point for two decades, producing chlorine and caustic soda for the pulping process.

To do that, it needed mercury, and lots of it.

And:

After it closed its plant, Canso Chemicals submitted a site remedial plan to the Nova Scotia Department of Environment. Remedial activities undertaken between 1992 and 1996 included finding mercury-contaminated soil under and around the Canso Chemicals plant, as well as materials collected in structures that were demolished; those items were to be disposed of in a “secure landfill” near the southern corner of the defunct plant.

Later, when the footings of the buildings were removed in 1999, “elemental mercury was identified in the bedrock,” deep underneath the former cell room and brine basement. Those mercury deposits could not be removed because of the risk of extending the contamination and because of their depth. As I reported previously for the Halifax Examiner, the mercury contamination is eight metres deep, five metres below the water table, and “there is potential for it to dissolve into groundwater and migrate towards Pictou Harbour.” According to the Dillon decommissioning report: “…the receptor of the mercury-impacted groundwater is expected to be Pictou Harbour, and the plume is expected to eventually discharge to the harbour approximately 700 m northwest of the former cell room … both water quality and sediment quality could be affected …”

If there is any good news here, it is that the mercury plume may not reach Pictou Harbour for 200 years.

But that doesn’t mean the mercury isn’t a serious and constant concern. The provincial government has been doing annual mercury monitoring at the former Canso Chemical site for at least 20 years.

And mercury is one of the reasons that citizens like David McNeill want to know more about the exact contents of the runoff on the Canso Chemicals site, and the wastewater and the landfill leachate from the pulp mill property on Abercrombie Point.

After all, if there is no mercury present — and there may well be none, we have no way of knowing — all the companies and Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change have to do is say so.

So far, they haven’t done so.

Endnotes

[1] On November 2, 2021, the Examiner sent the following to Olin:

“Recent court documents from the British Columbia Supreme Court, where Northern Pulp, (which this document says is 50% owner of Canso Chemicals, with Olin owning the other half) has sought creditor protection, speak of a ditch that has been dug to separate the Canso Chemicals site from the site of the hibernating Northern Pulp mill, so that wastewater from the Canso Chemicals site is kept separate from the wastewater on the Northern Pulp mill site. My questions are:

  1. Is Olin still a 50% owner of Canso Chemicals? If not, when did that change? To whom was it sold? Or does Olin now own 100% of the company?
  2. If Olin (or any of its affiliates) is still an owner or partial owner of Canso Chemicals: (a) has it been involved in putting in ditching between the mill and the Canso Chemicals site, and what was the purpose of the ditching? (b)  has it been involved in (financing or planning or otherwise) putting in the treatment plant for the wastewater from the Canso Chemicals site that went in in May 2021? (c) was this done in consultation or discussions with Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change? If not, were any permits obtained for the plant’s development? (d) is Olin now responsible for the Canso Chemicals treatment plant, and what is it treating, how much, and is it discharging into East River / Pictou Harbour? (e) Is the treated wastewater tested to determine if it meets CCME criteria and can be discharged into East River / Pictou Harbour? (f) If it doesn’t meet CCME criteria, where is it discharged? Is any of it sent to the Central Colchester Wastewater Treatment Facility? Or any of it mixed with the wastewater that Northern Pulp is sending to that facility for treatment? (g) Is there any risk of mercury contamination in wastewater from around the Canso Chemicals site, given that there are landfills with mercury-contaminated materials and also bedrock underneath former Canso Chemicals buildings contains a large plume of mercury? Is any testing done of the wastewater for mercury?”

[2] On November 2, 2021, the Examiner emailed Sean Lewis, spokesperson for Northern Pulp:

  1. Is Northern Pulp (or Paper Excellence, or any of their affiliates) a partial owner of Canso Chemicals? (This US Securities report for Olin Corporation of all its subsidiaries shows that as of December 2018, Olin owned 50% of Canso Chemicals and Northern Pulp owned the other 50%. Is this still the case?) If not, when was this share of Canso Chemicals sold, and to whom?
  2. If Northern Pulp (or any of its affiliates) is still an owner or partial owner of Canso Chemicals: (a) has it been involved in putting in ditching between the mill and the Canso Chemicals site, and what was the purpose of the ditching (b) has it been involved in putting in the treatment plant for the wastewater from the Canso Chemicals site that went in in May 2021? (c) was this done in consultation or discussions with Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change? If not, were any permits obtained for the plant’s development? (d) is Northern Pulp now running the treatment plant, and what is it treating, how much, and is it discharging into East River / Pictou Harbour? (e) Is the treated wastewater tested to determine if it meets CCME criteria and can be discharged into East River / Pictou Harbour? (f) If it doesn’t meet CCME criteria, where is it discharged? Is any of it sent to the Cental Colchester Wastewater Treatment Facility? Or any of it mixed with the wastewater that Northern Pulp is sending to that facility for treatment? (g) Is there any risk of mercury contamination in wastewater from around the Canso Chemicals site, given that there are landfills with mercury-contaminated materials and also bedrock underneath former Canso Chemicals buildings contains a large plume of mercury? Is any testing done of the wastewater for mercury?

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Joan Baxter

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

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