Nova Scotia Lands, a provincial crown corporation charged with cleaning up Boat Harbour, played a role in silencing two Dalhousie University researchers whose work studied air pollution coming from the Northern Pulp mill, the Halifax Examiner has learned.
In Part 3 of the Dirty Dealing series, I reported on the researchers’ 2017 ambient air study, which revealed that air levels of three volatile organic compounds (VOCs) near the pulp mill 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.
According to the public and peer-reviewed study, many VOCs are either known or suspected of having direct toxic effects on humans, ranging from carcinogenic to neurotoxic and that “combinations of air toxics may have additive or synergistic adverse health effects.” By analyzing the available data, the study authors were able to show that the Abercrombie pulp mill (currently Northern Pulp) was the likely source of the contaminants.
I tried to ask both Emma Hoffman and Tony Walker, two of the lead researchers, about their work 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.”
“At the moment I am unable to comment due to ongoing EA [Environmental Assessment] consultations,” wrote Walker in an email. “Although I am not funded by NP [Northern Pulp] most of my articles are very critical of them. However, when completed I’d be happy to speak with you.” When I pressed Walker on what the air study had to do with “ongoing EA consultations,” he said: “It’s a long story and I’ll be happy to enlighten you when we meet. I’m not sure how long it will take…. It’s frustrating I know. I’ve got two other manuscripts ready to submit to journals and they have been sitting on my desk since August!”
Both Hoffman and Walker are members of the Boat Harbour Environmental Advisory Management Committee (BHEAC), which was formed in 2016 after the governing Liberals set in law the January 2020 closure of Boat Harbour as Northern Pulp’s waste lagoon. At the time, the provincial department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal handed over the responsibility for the remediation of Boat Harbour to Nova Scotia Lands Inc., a crown corporation, which is now the proponent of the project.
Through a Freedom of Information request, the Examiner has obtained minutes from the BHEAC meetings dating back to 2016. Those minutes indicate that starting in September of 2017 — the same month that the ambient air study was published — and at each of the following four meetings for which minutes were provided, there was an “Action Item” with regards to “Public Communications” that stated each time: “Sensitive at current time and will continue until strategy is finalized.”
According to the Terms of Reference, the role of the BHEAC is to provide “expert advice” on the environmental management of the project, “throughout the life” of the project.
In addition to representatives from Nova Scotia Lands and Dalhousie University, the committee includes members from Nova Scotia government departments including Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, Environment, and Aboriginal Affairs, as well as members from Pictou Landing First Nation, and “others as deemed appropriate.”
Meetings are held once a month in Halifax, and in exchange for their attendance and advice, Nova Scotia Lands agreed to provide committee members with formal support services as well as consultant fees. The details of these financial agreements were not provided in the FOI release.
I contacted the province’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal to find out who issued the “action item” and if it had anything to do with the ambient air study. Media relations advisor Marla MacInnis would not confirm that the air study prompted the action item, despite the temporal proximity of the action item and the publication of the study. All she said was that Nova Scotia Lands put forth the action item and that “we have deferred major public communication until we better understand the extent and nature of the contamination in Boat Harbour and the proposed remediation options to best address the situation.”
Asked if there would be consequences if a committee member contravened the code of silence, MacInnis replied: “We want to make sure we have consistent communications once the extent and nature of the contamination is completely understood and the remediation options are better delineated and evaluated.” Then she added, “Committee members agree with the need for consistent messaging.”
In this 2016 Examiner story, I reported on the case of Robert Cameron, an ecologist in the Protected Areas branch of Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment and expert on the boreal felt lichen — a species that had since 2002 been designated “endangered” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Cameron gave a presentation on the lichen and raised concerns about its future.
One of Cameron’s slides caught the ire of Allan Eddy, then the associate deputy minister of the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources. The slide read: “The level of forest harvesting on the landscape is ecologically unsustainable.”
Emails accessed through a FOI request revealed that immediately following Cameron’s presentation, Eddy contacted one of Cameron’s bosses expressing concerns under the subject heading “Coordinated messaging.” He wrote in part: “Can we have a discussion on how best to ensure staff approach such issues with a more corporate consideration of potential impacts.”
While admittedly the muzzling and formal censure of a government scientist is not exactly the same as the case of university professors agreeing to stay silent on matters to secure funding, the outcome is.
Message control, in whatever form it takes, always has its beneficiaries.
In the case of Cameron and the boreal felt lichen, the information he provided about unsustainable forest practices contradicted what the provincial government has been advancing for decades: commercial, industrial forest interests at the expense of the environmental or public one.
In the case of the ambient air study, the study authors’ silence certainly reduces, if not eliminates the possibility of inconvenient questions arising about Northern Pulp’s cancer-causing air emissions. Indeed, there isn’t a single news outlet in this province (other than The Halifax Examiner) that has reported on it, likely because the authors wouldn’t agree to speak about it.
Who benefits from this silence? Take a wild guess.
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‘When I pressed Walker on what the air study had to do with “ongoing EA consultations,” he said: “It’s a long story and I’ll be happy to enlighten you when we meet. I’m not sure how long it will take….’
It is a long story: the story of the progressive corporatization of public institutions like the university under neoliberalism, where research funding is increasingly dependent upon private/corporate donors and comes with strings attached, whether in the form of contractual obligations or of the implicit threat of jeopardizing career opportunities for non-tenured academics (another closely-related factor) who are too outspoken. A wild guess who benefits from *this* self-censorship.