In a study published in 2017, Dalhousie University researchers reported that air levels of three volatile organic compounds (VOCs) near the Abercrombie pulp mill in Pictou County exceeded cancer risk thresholds and “are of primary health concern in terms of population risk.”

Over an eight-year period (2006-2013), 1,3-butadiene, benzene, and carbon tetrachloride were found to routinely exceed US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cancer-risk levels, which refer to the probability of contracting cancer if exposed to a concentration of a substance every day over the course of a 70-year lifetime. By analyzing the available data, the study authors were able to show that the Abercrombie pulp mill (now called Northern Pulp) was the likely source of the contaminants. [1]The Dalhousie study analyzed ambient Volatile organic compounds (VOC) concentrations at the Granton monitor from 2006 to 2013. During this time period the pulp mill at Abercrombie Point underwent two … Continue reading

The study, “Pilot study investigating ambient air toxics emissions near a Canadian kraft pulp and paper facility in Pictou County, Nova Scotia,” published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science Pollution Research, analyzed publicly accessible emissions data from a provincially operated air monitor located in Granton, about 2.5 kilometres southwest of the mill. As part of the National Air Pollution Surveillance (NAPS) Program — a joint federal-provincial-territorial initiative that tracks the emissions of 340 toxic compounds — the Granton site monitored 36 volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

In 2015, Environment Canada decided to decommission the Granton air monitor, the only one in Pictou County that measured VOCs. That was a questionable decision since the study authors recommended that more, not less, VOC monitoring should be taking place, particularly in areas where there is higher residential exposure to the mill’s toxic emissions.

I contacted the study authors to ask for their help in shedding some light on these findings but all six refused interviews.

Living Downwind Dangerous

Northern Pulp mill at Abercrombie Point in relation to the town of Pictou, Pictou Landing, and the NAPS air monitor at Granton, which has since been decommissioned. Also indicated are the locations of two other air contaminant point sources, Michelin Tire and the Trenton Thermal Generating Station. Google Maps.

By analyzing the NAPS data from the Granton site along with the local meteorological conditions at Caribou Point, the Dalhousie study authors were able to show a positive correlation with wind direction and the Granton site’s ambient VOC concentrations in relation to the location of the pulp mill. In other words, when the prevailing winds were blowing from the mill toward the Granton air monitor, the VOC concentrations went up, routinely exceeding the respective cancer risk thresholds.

This is an important association because it indicates, according to the study, that while there are other local sources of toxic air emissions in the area — including a coal-fired generating station in Trenton, and Michelin, a tire manufacturer — the mill was the likely contributor to the increased VOC concentrations.

The study also says that in the summer, when the prevailing winds from the southwest dominate, blowing from the direction of the mill towards the town of Pictou, people would be spending more time outdoors and are more likely to be exposed to higher concentrations of the toxic air. [2]The study also noted that carbon tetrachloride, which was detected at the Granton air monitor but was not reported to have been released by Northern Pulp to the NPRI, could have become airborne … Continue reading

According to the study, volatile organic compounds are a “growing concern,” because of their cumulative impacts and the consequences of chronic, long-term exposures at the community-level.

Many VOCs are either known or suspected of having direct toxic effects on humans, ranging from carcinogenic to neurotoxic. While there is little known about the toxic effects of 1,3-butadiene, studies of long-term exposure to benzene in occupational settings link it to leukemia, and the World Health Organization says no safe level of exposure to benzene can even be recommended.

High exposure to carbon tetrachloride is known to cause liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage. The study also notes that “combinations of air toxics may have additive or synergistic adverse health effects… therefore exposure to mixed VOCs might pose health risks to facility employees and neighboring residents.”

VOCs also play a role in the formation of ground level ozone and particulate matter, the pollutants most responsible for smog, which causes a broad spectrum of health problems because the fine particulates can get lodged deep in our lungs. Cardiovascular disease, lung damage, and respiratory illnesses like chronic bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, and emphysema are all linked to smog. Recent studies have found that although everyone can be affected by smog, the elderly and those already affected with respiratory diseases are at greater risk. So are children, who take more breaths.

The available literature is also clear about the risk of living downwind from a pulp and paper facility: it can make you sick, say the study authors. And Pictou County residents have been shown to have significantly higher proportions of chronic respiratory disease compared to provincial averages, as well as the highest rates of cancer incidence in Nova Scotia. Some have argued over the years that the higher incidence of disease is a result of lifestyle choices and Pictou County’s historical ties with heavy industry. But despite calls for an epidemiological study to confirm a connection with the pulp mill, one has never been conducted.  [3]Pictou County cancer and respiratory illness incidence from Hoffman, et al. 2015. Assessment of Public Perception and Environmental Compliance at a Pulp and Paper Facility: A Canadian Case Study. … Continue reading

Packaged Response by Province

I asked the Nova Scotia Department of Environment for its reaction to the study findings and spokesperson Chrissy Matheson replied with this statement:

The levels of the three VOCs that you are referring to in Granton were comparable to or significantly lower than levels recorded in downtown Halifax and Kejimkujik National Park. They were also below or comparable to average levels across Canada and have been declining consistently over the past 12 years.

Matheson said the monitor was decommissioned in 2015 after Environment and Climate Change Canada analyzed 10 years of data and “determined that VOC levels were not a concern in the area and were on par with or lower than other monitored Canadian communities.” [4]It should be noted that as much as we hate to believe it, the air at Kejimkujik National Park is remarkably bad. In 2001 GPI Atlantic reported that it had among the highest levels of ground-level … Continue reading

In other words, the province says there’s nothing to worry about because the average annual levels of VOCs picked up by the Granton monitor were “below or comparable to average levels” over time, elsewhere. And because of this, the monitor was decommissioned.

But it’s what the province didn’t say that is most telling.

Air monitors are stationary devices meant to measure contaminants in outdoor air. When they are located properly, like in Halifax where there is a relatively steady pollution source (cars), they can indicate levels of pollutants, like smog, quite accurately. But not so when it comes to “point sources,” like the mill. The problem with points sources is there is often a lot of variability. So, when the wind was blowing from the mill toward the monitor, it picked up the VOCs. But when the wind was blowing in another direction, it didn’t. So the high levels — the ones that routinely exceeded the cancer-risk thresholds reported by the Dalhousie researchers — got averaged down by all the “zeros” registered when the wind is blowing in other directions.

It doesn’t mean there aren’t any VOCs when Granton registered “zero” VOCs; it just means the VOCs were blowing somewhere else. In other words, the levels that exceed the cancer risk threshold are likely occurring much of the time, but were only registering when the wind was blowing toward Granton.

Averages can be very misleading because they do not capture high “episodic” emissions, like wildfires, facility malfunctions or shutdowns, or in this case, variations in the levels that are themselves more a reflection of improper monitor positioning than anything else.

After all, the whole point of having an air monitor in the first place is to find out pollution levels for the purpose of assessing the health risk to a population. In order to do that you need to know a few things: the concentration or the amount of the pollutant in the air — information a well-positioned air monitor could provide — the dose or the amount that is breathed in, and the number of people exposed.

When it comes to the VOCs at Granton, there’s a lot of important information that’s still missing because the air data alone doesn’t tell us anything about how many people were exposed, at what concentrations, or for how long. At best it’s an indirect measurement of VOC pollution exposure.

The study authors addressed some of this when they recommended that given the VOC emissions and the cancer-risk associated with the levels being picked up by the Granton monitor, the government should position monitoring stations that measure VOCs in areas where there is higher residential exposure.

But instead the government did the opposite, and took the only monitor measuring VOCs in Pictou County down.

Dave Gunning is a well-known musician and vocal member of  Clean the Mill, a group that formed several years ago in response to growing concerns about the air and water pollution being released by the mill. He thinks what happened amounts to a cover up:

A monitor is installed in Granton that measures VOCs and it is determined that the VOC concentrations coming from the mill are high and harmful. And this scientific, peer-reviewed study recommended that more of these monitors should be installed in other populated areas being exposed to the mill smoke. But more monitoring stations have not been installed; in fact the only one that used to collect this data had already been removed prior to this study being released to the public. So is this a coincidence, or not?

Joan Baxter is an investigative journalist and author of the recently-released book The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest, which “explores the power” that the Abercrombie pulp mill has wielded in the province for decades. [5]The mill also recently tried to wield power against Baxter when the company encouraged its employees to boycott Coles and Chapters if they continued with Baxter’s book signing event. It was a move … Continue reading Baxter says she’s not surprised by the study’s findings and says that throughout the mill’s 50-year history there have been serious issues with not only how the province has monitored and enforced Northern Pulp’s emissions but with “obfuscation of environmental truths by both the Nova Scotia government and the mill about its emissions.” She wonders, “If the government wants to convince a skeptical public that it is serious about monitoring the mill and protecting human and environmental health in the area, why would they decommission any monitors at all, and not be adding them?”

Bad Air and No Teeth

Northern Pulp Mill. Photo: Halifax Examiner

In order to assess the health risk associated with the VOC emissions detected at the Granton air monitor, the Dalhousie study authors turned to the US and the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Toxics Assessment, which is a screening tool that provides a “snapshot of the outdoor air quality and the risks to human health that would result if air toxic emissions levels remained unchanged.” The study authors used the US guidelines to evaluate the level of risk associated with the elevated levels of VOC concentrations recorded in the air at Granton because nothing like it exists in Canada.

In fact, despite the fact that air pollution is the single largest environmental factor making us sick in this country, the federal and provincial governments do not have legally enforceable air quality standards for toxic substances, including VOCs, in the air we breathe. [6]Earlier this year the International Institute of Sustainable Development released a report on the Costs of Pollution in Canada, which compiled research showing that in 2015, 7,700 people in Canada … Continue reading

All provinces have their own way of handling air pollution and in Nova Scotia, polluters’ emission limits are set on a case-by-case basis, for each facility, through an approval process — a subject we’ll return to.

At the federal level there are no legally binding guidelines for air pollution, only voluntary guidelines. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) outlines national air objectives and emissions standards for certain industries, but nothing is legally enforced, unlike the US, UK, and the EU, where national air quality standards do have legal teeth.

According to David Boyd, a lawyer and professor at Simon Fraser University, despite the voluntary status of Canada’s air quality guidelines, they are weaker than the legally binding ones found elsewhere. A strong proponent of incorporating a citizen’s right to a healthy environment into the constitution, Boyd points out that Canada is also lax in enforcing the environmental laws that do exist and fails to properly fine companies engaged in environmentally damaging activities.

Boyd illustrates the point with this astonishing factoid: “Overdue book fines collected by the Toronto Public Library in a single year exceeded the total amount of fines levied under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA, Canada’s main pollution law) during its first 25 years.”

Under CEPA, a tracking program called the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) was created whereby facilities, like Northern Pulp, are required to self-report any pollution they release into the environment.

In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, Northern Pulp reported to the NPRI that it released 136 tonnes of VOCs into the air.

Information like this is supposed to help identify and monitor sources of pollution in Canada with the idea that the public access alone will motivate industry to prevent and reduce pollutant releases. But in 2009 Canada’s Auditor General audited Environment Canada to find out what it was doing to ensure that industry’s self-reported emissions data were even accurate and it found that the department was “unable to assess the accuracy and completeness of the data,” did not require third party verification of pollutant release information, and did not conduct routine on-site visits to verify data. It also pointed out there was “little incentive for facilities to improve data quality.”

Thirty-Seven Pulp Mills, All in One

It’s not often that pollution abatement technology becomes the subject of dinner time conversation, but the summer of 2014 was different. That was when the residents of Pictou County, so sick and tired of the smell, smog, and ash in the air, called on the province to shut down the mill. Erin Brockovich, a well-known American environmental crusader, threw her support behind the clean air movement in Pictou and prominent Nova Scotia businessman Paul Sobey (also part of the Clean the Mill group) added his voice to the protests, angry about the emissions and effects on the area’s soil.

The electrostatic precipitator on the recovery boiler — equipment that would normally remove the particulate matter — wasn’t working. In fact, it had been showing its age for years. Additionally, the power boiler scrubber was having troubles of its own. Stack tests were failing repeatedly and spectacularly, showing that the mill was producing particulate matter emissions well above legal limits.

If you look at NPRI data leading up to 2014, it easy to understand how public concern gained momentum.

In 2012, Northern Pulp reported to NPRI the release of 1,011 tonnes of fine particulate matter into the atmosphere. Remember, this is the deadliest kind of particulate, the kind that can get lodged in your lungs forever. One industry insider noted it was like having 37 Irving mills worth of fine particulates. In fact, NPRI data shows that in 2012 Northern Pulp was the highest emitter in Canada of seven substances, including Total Reduced Sulphur (TRS), Total Particulate Matter, PM10 and PM2.5. [7]Hoffman, et al. (2015) “Assessment of Public Perception and Environmental Compliance at a Pulp and Paper Facility: A Canadian Case Study.” Environmental Monitoring and Assessment. … Continue reading

Stack tests from November 2013 showed the mill was producing emissions 78 per cent above what was allowed. When that information was finally made public in the summer of 2014, media turned to the province’s health minister at the time, Leo Glavine for comment. Despite the scientific certainty that inhalation of fine particulates over time can be deadly, Glavine said the emissions posed no immediate health risk to Pictou residents: “We only have anecdotal information…we have nothing really substantial from the scientific community or medical community to indicate that we have a problem that needs to be addressed right at this moment.”

In the same year that Glavine downplayed the mill’s emissions, Northern Pulp reported the release of 1,291 tonnes of fine particulate matter into the atmosphere — equivalent to 13 Irving pulp mills in one location that year. But it wasn’t just the faulty pollution abatement equipment that was to blame. The mill was also setting production records: five of its most productive days in five decades of operation were all in 2014.

Particulate matter released by three bleached Kraft pulp producers between 2010 and 2016. The first number is Total Particulate Matter (TPM) and second number in brackets is the more dangerous fine particulate matter (PM2.5), measured in tonnes. Source: Historical industry self-reported data to the National Pollution Release Inventory (NPRI).

In response to the sustained outcry of Pictou residents in 2014, the Nova Scotia Environment Minister at the time, Randy Delorey, issued a Ministerial Order saying that Northern Pulp was in violation of the terms and conditions of its Industrial Approval by exceeding air quality stack emissions from the recovery boiler. The mill was ordered to comply by May 30, 2015 or be shut down. That’s when Northern Pulp installed the new $35 million electrostatic precipitator in the recovery boiler. But the issues with the power boiler, which was first noted to be problematic in 2006, were never addressed.

Modernized pulp mill stacks typically have both electrostatic precipitators (ESP) and scrubbers in them to remove pollutants. An ESP removes particulate matter before it leaves the stack by applying a charge to the particles so they can be collected by oppositely charged plates. Properly functioning scrubbers can also remove particles by dissolving or absorbing them into a liquid, but they are mainly designed to remove gaseous emissions.

Northern Pulp’s five pollution-emitting stacks. Original photo courtesy Gerry Farrell. Credit: Dr. Gerry Farrell

One of the reasons the Irving pulp mill at Reversing Falls in New Brunswick emits significantly less particulate matter than Northern Pulp has something to do with the equipment it has on its stacks. According to a 2016 “Facility Profile” prepared by the New Brunswick Department of Environment, the Irving mill has ESP units and scrubbers on both the recovery boiler and power boiler, as well as an ESP unit on the lime kiln.

Northern Pulp’s one and only ESP is located on the recovery boiler. According to the province, it has scrubbers on the recovery boiler, power boiler, lime kiln and smelt dissolving tank.

But the effectiveness of the aging equipment to remove air contaminants is highly suspect. For instance, the scrubber located on the recovery boiler has been known to get plugged and receives very little maintenance due to its location on the stack, according to a source familiar with the mill. It also experienced a lot of downtime when the old electrostatic precipitator failed, an issue that came to light in 2014, as previously noted, when the excessive pollution angered community members who called on the province to shut down the mill.

The scrubber in the power boiler was reportedly offline in 2006, and more than a decade later, issues with it seem to remain. Last summer, Northern Pulp exceeded particulate matter emissions limits from that stack by nearly 50 per cent. It was the third year in a row the power boiler emissions exceeded limits set by the province. According to news reports at the time, Northern Pulp spokesperson Kathy Cloutier said that boiler experts were being called to the site to conduct a full audit of the scrubber operations.

I asked Cloutier about all this: The status of the scrubbers on the recovery boiler, power boiler, and the lime kiln, as well as whether there was any pollution abatement equipment on the high level roof vent or the smelt dissolving tank stack — both are potential sources of the sulphur smell, combustion gases, and particulate matter. I also asked her about the results of the audit on the power boiler scrubber operations.

But Cloutier didn’t answer my questions. Instead she just pointed me to a table on the Northern Pulp web site that shows that the power boiler met the mill’s Industrial Approval emission limit in September and again in December of last year and wrote: “Northern Pulp is committed to reducing our environmental footprint.”

Where are the VOCs coming from?

All of the stacks at Northern Pulp emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as well as Total Reduced Sulphur (TRS), which is a mixture of compounds containing sulphur, and includes hydrogen sulphide, the gas with a characteristic “rotten egg” smell. But most of the VOCs and TRS comes from the recovery boiler, where the “black liquor” — the waste from the Kraft process — is burned to recover the sodium and sulphides, dispose of the unwanted dissolved wood components, and generate steam.

The problem is, ESP units are not designed to remove combustion gases; they are meant to deal with particulates. [8]For evidence of this just take a look at the self-reported NPRI data, which shows that the new ESP in the recovery boiler is doing little if anything when it comes to VOCs. In 2012, before the new … Continue reading You need properly functioning scrubbers to remove these gases. But the scrubber in the recovery boiler is 50 years old, and it’s also designed for lower flows, says one industry insider, who agreed to speak to me on the condition of anonymity. He said it can handle flows around 500 tonnes/day but the mill has ramped up its pulp production, sometimes close to 1,000 tonnes/day, which he says could result in an “exponential drop” in scrubber efficiency.

Up in Smoke

As was reported in Part 1 and Part 2 of the “Dirty Dealing” series, in 2015 the governing Liberals introduced the Boat Harbour Act, legislation that requires Northern Pulp to have a new treatment facility up and running by the end of January 2020, when Boat Harbour will no longer be used as the mill’s waste lagoon and is slated for an estimated $133 million clean-up.

Emails accessed through the Freedom of Information act revealed that the new treatment facility using “activated sludge” had to actually be up and running by July of 2019 to allow for a “gradual exit from Boat Harbour.” Any snags in the process could make the legislated closure of Boat Harbour in early 2020, from Northern Pulp’s perspective, impossible. Whether this deadline has anything to do with why the government decided on a quicker and less-onerous Class 1 assessment — one that is followed by a 30-day formal public comment phase instead of one that could have lasted for nearly four months — is still unclear.

While the project is expected to be registered with the province in early summer, we know now that Northern Pulp is planning to pipe the “treated” effluent — upwards of 70 million litres per day — to an underwater site in the Northumberland Strait, a prime lobster fishing ground.

The Nova Scotia Department of Environment would not disclose to me what the mill plans to do with the sludge, saying the information would be made available when the mill registers its project. But in 2011, when Northern Pulp commissioned Montreal-based KSH to study various treatment options in order to satisfy the conditions of its operating permit, the firm indicated that the dewatered sludge could be “burned along with bark in the mill’s power boiler, which reduces or eliminates the problem of landfilling wet sludge.”

Dave Gunning has no doubt burning the sludge in the power boiler will make things much worse in terms of emissions. “They probably shouldn’t be burning anything in that power boiler right now because it doesn’t even have a precipitator.” He also wonders about what kinds of chemicals will be in the sludge, and what will happen if these are burned and released into the air. They need to have publicly accessible continuous emissions monitoring (CEM) on all the stacks, he says, “in order to really know what’s really coming out.”

Cone of Silence

The Dalhousie study was led by Emma Hoffman, along with two other researchers from Dalhousie’s School of Resources and Environmental Studies (Tony Walker and Kate Sherren) as well as three researchers from the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology (Judith  Guernsey, Jong Sung Kim, and Pantelis Andreou).

Hoffman and study co-author Tony Walker have both published papers in reputable journals in the past, quite critical of the mill, with the latest one raising serious questions about proper air monitoring and the protection of public health in that region. The study was “curiosity driven” research based on Hoffman’s master’s thesis and her interest in industrial pollution rooted in her own background growing up in Pictou, and apparently, according to Walker, received no outside funding.

I wanted to interview Hoffman and Walker about the study but neither would agree to speak to me. They both cited “ongoing consultations” with the Boat Harbour remediation project. Hoffman said she was unable to speak “due to the sensitivity of the subject matter.” Walker said he’d be happy to speak once the Environmental Assessment process was completed, something he agreed could take many months. Oddly, study co-author Judith Guernsey from Dal’s Community Health and Epidemiology department said she too was unable to speak about the study, though she said she wasn’t involved in any of the consultations.

In an effort to understand their silence, the Halifax Examiner has filed a Freedom of Information Request with the government and will report back when that information is released. However, it is worth noting that a number of university professors from Dalhousie University, Acadia University, Cape Breton University, and Saint Francis Xavier University are part of the Boat Harbour Advisory Committee, which was formed in January 2016, to assist with the Boat Harbour remediation project. Some of the professors might have signed agreements and are engaged in research projects funded by the province, through Nova Scotia Lands, with Ken Swain as the project leader.

While it is not unusual for a professor to enter into an agreement and agree not to speak on an issue in order to secure funding, it does seem incredulous that they would be prohibited from discussing an already published, publicly-funded, peer-reviewed study that sheds important light on a public health issue.

On the Hook Forever

In 2015, two years before the study about VOCs at Granton was published, Hoffman and some of her colleagues penned another study, this one exploring the public perception of the mill as having gotten away for decades with not complying with air quality limits.

Although the province does have the power to issue substantial fines when the mill violates emissions thresholds, Hoffman and her colleagues point out that instead the province typically issues a directive requiring an upgrade, as happened with the ESP on the recovery boiler, or it orders a meeting with a compliance officer to come up with a plan of action.

In fact, the only time the province fined the mill was in 2017, when the power boiler repeatedly exceeded particulate matter limits set by the province. For that, the mill was fined a paltry $697.50 and was given time to “come into compliance.”

As previously noted, in Nova Scotia the government sets polluters’ emission limits on a case-by-case basis. So this means there is no across-the-board limit for particulate matter emissions, for example, but limits are set for each facility. This piecemeal approach is preferred by provincial governments because it can weigh the economic benefits of a plant against the environmental impact.

In other words, it could be decided that the harm to human health and the environment are warranted because of the social or economic benefits.

When it comes to VOCs, Department of Environment spokesperson Chrissy Matheson says the government did consider them when it was developing limits for Northern Pulp’s Industrial Approval in 2015, but it “determined that emission limits should be incorporated for particulate matter and total reduced sulphurs. These are the primary emissions of concern for the facility.”

Which brings us to the most recent Industrial Approval, the one mechanism the government currently has to limit the emissions from the mill. To his credit, when then-Environment Minister Randy Delorey first issued it in 2015, his department included dozens of terms and conditions that reflected the public’s outrage over the bad air. It included requirements for the company to reduce water consumption by about one-third over five years, reduce emissions of particulate matter by 80 per cent, and effluent by 25 per cent. The new five-year approval even capped the mill’s annual production at 310,000 tonnes of pulp, but that volume was still arguably too high for the outdated equipment to handle. According to Hoffman’s study, the province imposed a “stringent regulatory framework comparable to similar operations in North America.”

But the mill quickly appealed the conditions saying they contravened the province’s “contractual obligations” to the mill, including the 1995 “Indemnity Agreement,” the one John Savage’s government signed with the mill, which, as we discussed earlier in the Dirty Dealing series, protected the owner of the mill from essentially everything forever.[9]A remarkable twist in the saga surrounding the Abercrombie mill took place in September of 2017, when Premier Stephen McNeil appointed Bernie Miller to the position of deputy minister of the Offices … Continue reading The mill also claimed the conditions were “impossible to meet,” and that they “jeopardize the long-term economic viability” of the mill. It argued that the production cap prohibits the mill’s “future expansion,” and that it “offers no additional environmental benefit.”

A few months later the department of Environment, headed at that point by Margaret Miller, back-tracked and issued eight changes to the conditions that were favourable to the company. Miller retracted all the outstanding items relating to the mill’s water usage and effluent levels, and instead of capping the mill’s production levels at 310,000 tonnes, she instead raised it to 330,000 tonnes.

In a recent opinion piece, Joan Baxter noted that the 1995 indemnity agreement put Nova Scotians “on the hook for the cost of treating and disposing of the mill’s effluent forever.” While the total costs are not yet known, a rough calculation shows it’ll be anything but cheap. While the provinces says it’s still in negotiation over the costs, the Boat Harbour remediation project ($133 million), the new effluent treatment system ($100 million), and a new oxygen delignification system in the mill ($70 million) could cost upwards of $300 million in public money.

In an interview, Baxter also makes this important connection. The Granton monitor was decommissioned in 2015, “when the mill was pushing back so hard on the proposed industrial approval (with a lawsuit) and in the end got what it wanted.”

In her study Hoffman concludes that the mill’s toxic legacy might be finally coming home to roost. “After decades of local pollution impacts and lack of environmental compliance, corporate social responsibility initiatives need implementing for the mill to maintain a social licence to operate.”

It looks to me like that social licence is about to expire, if it hasn’t already.

Click here to continue to Part 4 of the “Dirty Dealing” series.

Linda Pannozzo is an award-winning freelance journalist and author of two books: The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – an Investigation into the Scapegoating of Canada’s Grey Seal (2013) and About Canada: The Environment (2016). 

This article is made possible through subscriptions. To support in-depth investigative reporting in Nova Scotia, please subscribe to the Halifax Examiner.


1 The Dalhousie study analyzed ambient Volatile organic compounds (VOC) concentrations at the Granton monitor from 2006 to 2013. During this time period the pulp mill at Abercrombie Point underwent two changes in ownership: In 2008 Neenah Paper sold the mill to Northern Resources, owned by US-based Blue Wolf Capital Management and Atlas Holdings. This is when we start referring to the mill as Northern Pulp. Then in 2011 the pulp mill is sold again, this time without a name change, to Paper Excellence Canada — a subsidiary of Asia Pulp and Paper (APP).
2 The study also noted that carbon tetrachloride, which was detected at the Granton air monitor but was not reported to have been released by Northern Pulp to the NPRI, could have become airborne through evaporation from the pulp’s wastewater lagoon at Boat Harbour.
3 Pictou County cancer and respiratory illness incidence from Hoffman, et al. 2015. Assessment of Public Perception and Environmental Compliance at a Pulp and Paper Facility: A Canadian Case Study. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment. 187:766. It is also worth noting that as the incidence of cancer has increased worldwide, the study of cancer has also evolved. For anyone interested in this subject matter I would highly recommend the 2013 book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. In it, Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist Dan Fagin investigates the 60-year saga of rampant pollution and inadequate oversight in a New Jersey seashore town where a cluster of childhood cancers — linked to the water and air pollution — was finally acknowledged and resulted in the largest legal settlement in the history of toxic dumping. What I found most fascinating about Fagin’s book was how he documents how the field of epidemiology and the world of industrial health research became increasingly dominated by scientists “in the pay of the manufacturers” of cancer-causing chemicals and pollution, and what had constituted proof of cause also shifted. He notes that, beginning in the 1950s, studies describing patterns of illness based on physicians’ examinations were replaced with studies by biostatisticians who took records from thousands of cases to draw conclusions about what was making patients sick. In what he calls “the rise of the new epidemiology” that involved very large studies involving thousands of people, small population studies were typically dismissed or regarded with skepticism. “The old case reports were now dismissed as unsubstantiated, and the new, more credible case-control and cohort studies were rarely attempted in factories or in small residential communities.” At the same time, there was a new emphasis on “lifestyle factors” such as smoking and nutrition, “with relatively little attention paid to involuntary chemical exposures” as the cause of chronic disease, and Fagin says that this “would not only draw scarce research dollars away from workplace studies, it would allow companies to avoid taking responsibility for conditions in their factories by shifting blame to the bad habits of their employees.” (p. 206)
4 It should be noted that as much as we hate to believe it, the air at Kejimkujik National Park is remarkably bad. In 2001 GPI Atlantic reported that it had among the highest levels of ground-level ozone concentrations in Canada and concentrations had increased by 21 per cent between 1992 and 2001, a result of the transboundary flows of pollutants. A provincial report on air quality also showed that from 2000 to 2007 ground level ozone levels at Keji were still among the highest in the province.
5 The mill also recently tried to wield power against Baxter when the company encouraged its employees to boycott Coles and Chapters if they continued with Baxter’s book signing event. It was a move that ultimately back-fired on the mill and resulted in the book becoming an unexpected best-seller.
6 Earlier this year the International Institute of Sustainable Development released a report on the Costs of Pollution in Canada, which compiled research showing that in 2015, 7,700 people in Canada died a premature death caused by air pollution.
7 Hoffman, et al. (2015) “Assessment of Public Perception and Environmental Compliance at a Pulp and Paper Facility: A Canadian Case Study.” Environmental Monitoring and Assessment. 187:766. According to 2012 NPRI data used in the study, Northern Pulp was the highest emitter of PM-Total, PM-10, PM-2.5, TRS, phenanthrene, acenaphthylene, and acenaphthene. The study said that in 2012 some of these emissions were often two to three orders of magnitude higher than other comparable mills. An order-of-magnitude difference between two values is a factor of 10. Two orders of magnitude is 100, three is 1,000. Northern Pulp’s VOC emissions, when compared to other pulp mills was roughly average.
8 For evidence of this just take a look at the self-reported NPRI data, which shows that the new ESP in the recovery boiler is doing little if anything when it comes to VOCs. In 2012, before the new ESP was installed, Northern Pulp reported it had emitted 143 tonnes of VOCs, and in 2015, the year it was installed, the mill reported releasing 132 tonnes. By 2016, if the ESP was making any difference in removing VOCs it would have reflected in the data, but instead VOC emissions were reported to have gone up to 136 tonnes.
9 A remarkable twist in the saga surrounding the Abercrombie mill took place in September of 2017, when Premier Stephen McNeil appointed Bernie Miller to the position of deputy minister of the Offices of Strategy Management. Miller was the lawyer at McInnis Cooper and Robertson, which represented the pulp mill (then Scott Maritimes Ltd.) when the indemnity agreement was signed by the Savage government in 1995.

Linda Pannozzo is an award-winning author and freelance journalist based in Nova Scotia. email:; Website:

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  1. This is a fine piece of reporting, much needed, and should be read by every Nova Scotian. The litany of failure with respect to the mill and public health risk in the Boat Harbour and Pictou area is an indictment of government failure to uphold the public good. Clearly the Granton air monitoring station should be recommissioned as a matter of urgency and another installed on the Pictou waterfront. A sizable number of people support the mill because of the jobs it offers, much needed in Pictou County. But in this day and age, do we support polluting industries at any cost for jobs? Pictou is a richly historic town with the potential to be another Lunenburg, generating a vibrant tourist and arts scene and many associated jobs. There are many heritage structures in Pictou currently on the market and begging for repurposing to maintain this potential. But as long as the mill is there, generating high VOC levels and contributing to Pictou County’s high cancer incidence, not to mention the smell, investment in the town’s potential is inhibited and the goal of a thriving community will remain under a cloud. Perhaps we need to revisit the need for this mill and its jobs.

  2. Another excellent and important piece by Pannozzo. This indemnity agreement with Northern Pulp is a metaphor for the neoliberal order, where the public is forced to pay for the privilege of being poisoned, having their environment destroyed, and their natural resources converted into profits for billionaire investors to hide in offshore tax havens. And if this so-called “agreement” were to be repealed by a government that took its responsibilities to its constituents seriously – obviously not the current one – it would probably be sued for hundreds of millions under NAFTA or some other international corporate rights treaty – also called “agreements”. The people have never “agreed” to any of this, so there never really was any “social license” to expire, just the standard mix of exploitative, unaccountable corporations, sock-puppet federal and provincial governments and a fraudulent ideology which sells it all as economically necessary.

  3. It would say it IS unusual for a professor to sign any agreement that limits their ability to speak to their research. It’s more likely that they believe they have a better way of effecting change, or have some other reason for declining to comment. And it’s not really a “cone of silence” given that there’s a published article that enables thorough, informative articles like this one, with or without author involvement.