This once pristine tidal estuary, Boat Harbour has been used as an industrial waste lagoon for the Abercrombie pulp mill (now Northern Pulp) near Pictou for fifty years. Photo courtesy Dave Gunning.

You could cut the tension in the room with a knife.

Earlier this month a delegation of fishers from Nova Scotia, PEI, and First Nations met with the Nova Scotia Environment Minister Iain Rankin, Central Nova MP Sean Fraser, and Pictou West MLA Karla MacFarlane to express their objections about the proposed new outfall for Northern Pulp’s mill waste.

For 50 years the area’s residents witnessed the transformation of Boat Harbour from a once pristine tidal estuary, so frequented by the Mi’kmaq of Pictou Landing that they referred to it as “the other room,” into a brown, frothy, toxic soup containing some of the world’s most dangerous chemicals: carcinogens such as dioxins and furans and heavy metals such as mercury, zinc, cadmium and chromium.

But that is soon to change. According to the Boat Harbour Act, legislation passed by the governing Liberals in 2015, the Abercrombie mill needs to have a new treatment facility up and running by January 2020, when Boat Harbour is slated for clean-up and will no longer be used as the mill’s waste lagoon.

But with the company set to register the proposal for the new treatment facility with the Department of Environment any day now, the prevailing mood in Pictou County is nowhere near celebratory.

For one thing, even though the details of the project haven’t yet been released, what we do know is worrying: Northern Pulp is planning to pipe the “treated” wastewater — upwards of 70 million litres per day, equivalent to 28 Olympic-size swimming pools — to an underwater site outside of Pictou Harbour, in the Northumberland Strait, a prime lobster fishing ground. With the province opting for a faster environmental review of the project, one that requires much less time or pubic consultation, many are wondering if it’s already a done deal and why other treatment options — ones that don’t use waterways as a dumping ground — aren’t also on the table.

Back in the meeting room, the discussion was heated. One fisher called the mill a “cancer factory,” while others pointed to the lack of transparency. The frustration and anger was palpable — a result of decades of air and water pollution from the mill, too many broken promises, and something else.

At a time when nearly 90 per cent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or overexploited, anything that could potentially harm what remains of the fishery in the Northumberland Strait is one threat too many.

What’s Being Proposed?

For 50 years the mill has dealt rather passively with the wastewater from making bleached Kraft pulp. It’s been more like a settling out process for the wood fibres, with nothing in place to remove the toxic chemicals. Technically it’s called an “aerated stabilization basin”: waste water from the mill gets discharged into two settling ponds, followed by an aeration lagoon, where oxygen is added, then a stabilization basin before being sent into Boat Harbour and then the Northumberland Strait.

Aerial shot of Northern Pulp’s current treatment system: two settling ponds, an aeration lagoon, a stabilization basin and then Boat Harbour. Photo: Nova Scotia Government

While the details of the design, engineering, and final cost of Boat Harbour’s replacement still haven’t been made public, Kathy Cloutier, Director of Corporate Communications at Paper Excellence, tells me that as part of the preliminary engineering and design phase, Montreal-based KSH Solutions looked at “all available effluent technologies” and “identified aerated stabilization treatment (AST) as the best form of treatment for the new facility.”

Back in 2011 Northern Pulp commissioned KSH to study various treatment options in order to satisfy the conditions of its operating permit. KSH looked at four “discharge cases” in addition to the status quo. Three required modifications to the current “system” (Boat Harbour) and only one looked at a new system — activated sludge treatment (AST).

A screen shot from the KSH Consulting’s 2012 document “Characterization and Evaluation of Effluent Collection and Treatment Systems,” showing a flow chart for an Activated Sludge Treatment system.

Cloutier says the new AST facility would be constructed on the existing Northern Pulp mill site and would involve converting the “soluble organic matter into solid biomass,” which she says would then be “separated from the liquid stream.” AST is essentially a biological treatment process that involves two stages, she says, “an aeration stage and a clarification and recycle stage.”

“It will be a modern system that mills, including that of Port Hawkesbury Paper here in Nova Scotia, and other facilities” in the world have in place. What she doesn’t say, however, is that Port Hawkesbury Paper is not a bleached Kraft pulp mill, it’s a thermo-mechanical pulp mill, which means the wood chips are broken down using heat and mechanical grinding, not chemicals. It’s the chemicals that have caused a lot of the trouble at the Abercrombie mill and surely it will need a treatment system that can handle them.

But Cloutier stresses that “the quality of [effluent] today is not the quality of decades past” and that since the 1990s “significant improvements” have been made at the mill. The new design will “easily meet” the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) guideline for effluent to limit impact to within 100 m of the discharge, she says.

When it comes to fishing and spawning grounds, Cloutier says “they are a few of the many considerations that go into selecting the best outfall location.”

Silent Killer

The Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, of which the Northumberland Strait is technically a part, is really a combination of estuary and ocean — an estuarine environment, where currents and tides combine with nutrient-rich upwellings to create one of the world’s most productive and diverse ecosystems. These waters swirl and mix in a complicated pattern influenced by temperature and currents, and when either changes, so does the ability of the system to support life.

Melanie Griffin is the quality and industry programmer with the PEI Fishermen’s Association. She told the politicians and fishers assembled at the meeting that the bottom waters of the Northumberland Strait are warming and that there’s already a lack of mixing. “This is already happening, it’s documented,” she said.

It’s true. More than a decade ago international consulting firm AMEC Earth & Environmental was hired by the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to do an assessment of the Northumberland Strait ecosystem and it identified a number of threats to the ecosystem — including rising water temperatures, rising water levels, and pollution from agricultural runoff, the pulp and paper mill, municipal waste, and fish plant effluent.

Read the study here.

The study found that seagrasses, important habitat for spawning and juvenile fish, are “disappearing,” as were macro algae like Irish moss, eelgrass, and kelp.

Some commercially exploited marine stocks such as rock crab, and scallops were also in trouble, and there was a decline in the average size and abundance of groundfish. Even lobster — a commercially important species that had received the most attention when it comes to monitoring of distribution and abundance — were having issues. Landings in the Northumberland Strait were showing a steady decline.

The study also noted the presence of areas that were “anoxic” or completely lacking in oxygen, a condition that results from “excessive nutrient inputs with effects on the wider biotic communities of the Strait.”

The comprehensive study even went so far as to identify that addressing the issue of increases in nutrients from land-based sources, including the pulp and paper mill, was the “most important marine environmental quality issue in the near shore areas” and the “highest priority for investigation.”

So what are we to make then of Northern Pulp’s proposal to pipe a gargantuan influx of nutrient-rich effluent into the Strait? [1]The 2007 AMEC study noted that in addition to suspended particulate material and oxygen demanding material, pulp effluents typically contain some nutrients as well. Effluent nutrient data provided by … Continue reading How will it affect the “wider biotic community,” and given the already fragile state of the system, could it create a dead zone?

Lobster Fishing Zone 26A and 26B in the Northumberland Strait. Graphic: DFO.

It wouldn’t be a first in Atlantic Canada. We already have a dead zone in the Lower St. Lawrence Estuary where the oxygen levels in the water are so low or hypoxic that they don’t support life.

These lethal and lifeless blobs have been referred to as a “silent killer” and are widespread, with more than 450 dead zones around the world. Our dead zone has been around for decades. It’s roughly 1,300 square km — about a quarter of the size of PEI — and is growing as a result of three things: the bottom waters have been getting progressively warmer as a result of climate change, an increase in organic load or nutrient pollution from human activities, and changes in the circulation of ocean water entering the Laurentian Channel from the Northwest Atlantic.

Large quantities of phosphates and nitrates fertilize ocean plants — plankton — and fuel their rapid growth. When the uneaten plankton die, they sink to the bottom and the process of bacterial decomposition takes oxygen out of the water making it hypoxic. Very low oxygen levels can be lethal to fish and other sea life, including lobster, causing large-scale mortality.

But even when oxygen is at levels that are not lethal but still not good, the conditions can cause physiological stress and sub-lethal effects such as reduced growth and trouble reproducing. Fish have also been known to abandon low-oxygen areas altogether.

DFO scientists have been studying the effects of the hypoxic waters in the Laurentian Channel on northern Gulf cod — an already beleaguered stock that also has to deal with severe hypoxia for a large portion of its range. Researchers found that cod are not able to swim for as long or as fast in hypoxic conditions, making them more vulnerable to predation, or fishing, and less able to hunt for food. It also slowed their digestion, causing them to eat less. [2]Section on dead zones adapted from my 2013 book The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, pp. 80-81. The study referred to was from 2002 by DFO scientists D. Chabot and C. Couturier.

The fact that mill effluent can cause hypoxia is no hidden secret. Back in 2003 the province submitted documents for a federal environmental assessment to reopen Boat Harbour to the sea. But consultants found that doing so would lead to algal blooms and eutrophication.

For its part the Abercrombie mill would no doubt argue that the effluent quality has improved over the years and that the proposed treatment facility will solve any issues related to oxygen depletion. But the reality is pulp and paper wastewater has a high organic load even when it is treated.

In fact, the 2012 KSH study looked at four “discharge cases” in addition to the status quo and how they would fair at reducing some of the nasty components of mill effluent: BOD (biochemical oxygen-demand), COD (chemical oxygen-demand), and TSS (Total Suspended Solids) — all of which could contribute to eutrophication in the Northumberland Strait.

KSH concluded: “The new [Activated Sludge Treatment] offers the best BOD reduction, but not extremely higher than simply modifying the basins or reducing load from the mill.” A less than tepid recommendation for what it estimated at the time would cost upwards of $46 million.

So, what will happen to the Northumberland Strait when it’s waters — known to remain in the Strait from weeks to months at a time — are overwhelmed with an unrelenting influx of oxygen-depleting waste water?

PEI lobster fisherman, competitive arm wrestler, and former Liberal MLA Charlie McGeoghegan was also at the meeting. He says the lobster fishery in the Strait — still highly lucrative with more than 1,500 licenses (in 26 A and 26 B combined) is worth upwards of a billion dollars. He says it would be a “mistake” to put all that at risk.

Then someone asked: “Is there a closed loop system somewhere in the world?”

No one had an answer.

The Road to Closure

A succession of companies has occupied the Abercrombie pulp mill: Scott Paper for nearly three decades, then Kimberly Clark for nearly a decade, Neenah Paper for four years, and then in 2008 it was sold 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.

Three years later the mill is sold again, without a name change, to Paper Excellence — a subsidiary of Asia Pulp and Paper. At the time, APP — owned by the Indonesian billionaire Widjaja family — was on a buying spree in Canada, picking up seven ailing pulp mills from across the country for nominal amounts.

In addition to Northern Pulp there were two mills in Saskatchewan and four in British Columbia. Despite receiving two awards in 2014 from the BC Liberal government for export and job creation, in 2015 Paper Excellence shut down two of the mills it had just bought: Howe Sound Pulp and Paper on BCs Sunshine Coast and the Chetwynd mill in northern BC, laying off nearly 300 workers combined. [3]Paper Excellence purchased the already shut down mill, located in the northern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, from Tembec in 2014. By that time, Chetwynd had been started up and shut down at least … Continue reading

The pulp industry across the country has been in trouble for some time and news of closures, applications for bankruptcy protection, and government rescue-packages are not unique to Nova Scotia. But despite their beleaguered status, two of the mills owned by Paper Excellence — Chetwynd in BC and Meadow Lake in Saskatchewan — did have one thing going for them. Both are considered leaders in environmental technology, with effluent systems that emit zero liquid discharge. [4]Meadow Lake, a BCTMP mill, was opened in 1992 by Millar Western and was, according to Millar Western, the world’s first zero-effluent, high yield market pulp mill.

Dave Gunning is 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. Gunning points to the closed loop systems that exist in western Canada: “They already have the internal expertise to run a zero effluent facility. It can be done here too. It would be far less expensive to build the proper one than the risk of having a poorer quality one go wrong.”

But Cloutier tells me that it’s just not possible. They make pulp differently at these other closed loop mills, she says. Meadow Lake, which is still operating, is a Bleached Chemical Thermal Mechanical Pulp (BCTMP) mill, while Northern Pulp operates a Bleached Kraft Pulp mill. “This is an entirely different process,” she says. Kraft pulp involves using chemicals to break down wood fibres while the other processes — thermal and mechanical — use heat and mechanical movement along with chemicals for pulping. [5]Interesting to note that earlier in the piece Cloutier seems to contradict the argument she makes here, when she said that since Activated Sludge Treatment was working for Port Hawkesbury Paper, it … Continue reading

The Kraft process is also a water hog.

Cloutier says that water usage at a mill like Meadow Lake would be significantly lower than at Northern Pulp: BCTMP mills typically use between 10-15 cubic metres of water per tonne of pulp produced, while Northern Pulp uses between 80-120 cubic metres of water per tonne of pulp. “The evaporation-based effluent treatment system cleans wastewater and returns it to the pulping process.”

“Operating a closed loop Kraft process would have significant technological and operational challenges to overcome,” continues Cloutier. “To the best of my knowledge there are no closed loop [bleached] Kraft pulp mills operating in the world… the concept is not seen as being technically as well as economically achievable in the foreseeable future.”

That’s a strange thing to say since it was seen as being both technically and economically achievable more than 20 years ago.

Air pollution from the Abercrombie mill. Photo courtesy Gerry Farrell.

Coming Clean

The technologies required for a closed loop system in a bleached Kraft pulp mill have existed for decades. Back in 1994, Pulp and Paper Magazine ran a 25-page “special report” called “Closing the Loop: The Effluent-Free Pulp and Paper Mill.” In it were a series of articles about how pulp and paper mills have “moved closer to effluent closure” and that the technology exists to make the “final environmental leap.”

The magazine’s editors interviewed a number of industry insiders, experts in the manufacturing of pulp and paper, all extolling the virtues and possibility of an effluent-free bleached Kraft mill, just like the one at Northern Pulp. One of the experts was Douglas Singbeil, at the time a researcher with the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada (PAPRICAN). He was the “group leader” for corrosion control and process engineering and in no uncertain terms was optimistic about the possibility of an effluent free mill.

Screen shot, Pulp and Paper Magazine extolling the possibility of zero effluent two decades ago.

Indeed, the mid-1970s marks the industry’s first real attempt to close the loop when the Great Lakes Paper Company in Thunder Bay, Ontario — at the time one of the largest pulp and paper facilities in the world — installed a zero effluent system in its bleached Kraft pulp mill. However, according to the “special report,” the company experienced a decade of “insurmountable problems,” much of it involving corrosion in the pipes, and eventually stopped the process altogether.

According to Singbeil, who was interviewed for the “special report” more than two decades ago, “All the problems that arose from Thunder Bay’s experience would be salvageable with today’s knowledge and technology.” Not only did he and others cited believe at the time that a closed loop bleached Kraft mill was technically achievable, they believed it was the right thing to do.

The president of one company in New Brunswick stated that companies will have to deal with the fact that even though their effluent meets environmental regulations, they are still having an impact on the receiving waters and the aquatic life. “So, in the long run, we will be faced with no alternative other than closure of the effluent streams,” he said.

Singbeil is now an expert in “corrosion services” with Quebec-based FPInnovations, one of the world’s largest private, non-profit organizations carrying out research and “technology transfer” for the Canadian forest industry. I tried to reach Singbeil because I figured he’d know the answer to my burning question: “Given that the technology for a closed loop bleach Kraft mill was available 20 years ago, why don’t any bleached pulp and paper mills operate in this way, as Cloutier claimed? I have yet to hear back from him. [6]Back in the spring I wrote about FPInnovations, as it was one of the firms hired in an effort to determine if biofuel was a viable sector for the province. They said it was, but it turns out it … Continue reading

I also contacted Douglas Reeve, one of the pioneers of the closed loop bleached Kraft pulp mill technology. He’s now a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry at the University of Toronto. Reeve along with the late Professor Howard Rapson, pioneered the system put in place in Thunder Bay.

“We installed what was intended to be an “effluent-free” system in a bleached kraft mill in Thunder Bay in the late 1970s,” Reeve tells me. “We were successful in introducing a number of technologies that were new at the time but were not successful in our overall goal. Although a number of the technologies stuck, the overall system was abandoned in the 1980s and not attempted anywhere else.”

I wanted to know more, including, “Why wasn’t zero effluent ultimately successful?” and “Is it the money that typically stands in the way of converting to “zero effluent”? But Reeve was “not keen to be involved.”

The fact is, Reeve is not alone. Industry insiders, even ones in the academic field, are nervous to speak out publicly. One source in the industry, who agreed to speak to me on the condition of anonymity, said that in order to understand the obstacles Northern Pulp faces in closing the loop, you have to look at what the other two closed loop mills in Canada have done.

“[These other mills] are able to do it because they’re using peroxide, and whenever you use chorine gas or chlorine dioxide, the closed loop systems are not possible because of the buildup of chlorides, it eats at the piping,” he said.

He points me to the results of a pilot study of Louisiana-Pacific’s closed loop bleached Kraft mill in Samoa, California — which has since shut down, a result of a volatile pulp market. The two-page summary produced in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Energy reported the benefits of “closed-cycle” system included the potential for substantial energy savings, a reduction in water consumption, the elimination of toxic wastes discharged in local waterways, and the elimination of potential worker and community hazards associated with using chlorine or chlorine dioxide.

The closed loop system was possible at the Samoa mill because it used a chlorine-free process for pulping and bleaching called “totally chlorine-free” (TCF), where hydrogen peroxide replaces the chlorine and chlorine dioxide as the bleaching agent. Unlike chlorine, hydrogen peroxide is noncorrosive and can be recycled back into the system “with significantly reduced risk of corrosion of machinery.”

Back in the 1990s, it was discovered that dioxin and furans were being released in the effluent from bleached pulp mills. The toxic, long-lived carcinogens were a byproduct of the chlorine used in the pulp bleaching process — indeed they make up a very sinister part of the contaminated sediments that have to be cleaned up at Boat Harbour.

Along with many other existing mills around the world, the Abercrombie mill (at that time Kimberly Clark) was forced by new environmental regulations to modify its bleaching processes, and in the mid-1990s it replaced elemental chlorine gas as the bleaching agent with chlorine dioxide, a process referred to as “elemental chlorine-free” (ECF).

It certainly sounds like a step in the right direction, but the problem with ECF is two-fold: For one, ECF does not eliminate presence of organochlorines like dioxins and furans — it just reduces them. A raft of studies indicate that ECF processes are not free of elemental chlorine; they just have a lot less of it.

And we’ve already touched on the second problem involving the potential for a closed loop. Chlorides lead to corrosion — the problem they encountered in Thunder Bay — and therefore one key prerequisite to “closing the loop” is TCF and the use of non-chlorine bleaching agents such as hydrogen peroxide.

The industry insider tells me that California’s strict environmental laws, coupled with pressure from the public concerned about water pollution, led to the pilot study. He says there are “a whole host of upgrades that could be done at the Abercrombie mill to drastically reduce the solids output, the chemical output, and the effect on the environment” and that it “could have been done 30 years ago. They haven’t even made a step in the right direction there.”

According to Dave Gunning, many companies around the world that used to operate bleached Kraft pulp mills have switched to BCTMP mills and zero effluent treatment facilities. He says it would be technically possible for Northern Pulp to upgrade to a BCTMP but it would be expensive. “Maybe around $100 million or more. But that’s pennies compared to what the fishing industry is worth.”

“Sorry History of Betrayal”

Joan Baxter is an investigative journalist and author of the just-released book The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest, which “explores the power” that the Ambercrombie pulp mill has wielded in the province for decades. She tells me that she doesn’t believe the mill or the government “has the best interests of citizens and the environment when they speak about new facilities for treating and disposing of the pulp mill’s effluent.”

Going through her boxes of files trying to put together a short history about the decades of promises that have been made, she says, “there has been one broken promise after another, and unfortunately it just looks like history repeating itself.”

Baxter says it all started when the “government knowingly lied to and betrayed the Pictou Landing First Nation to get hold of Boat Harbour… and after so many mistakes over the past decades it is simply unbelievable that the government looks prepared to make yet another [mistake] on the pulp mill file.”

Baxter is referring to the mid-1960s, when the Nova Scotia government set out to entice Scott Paper to locate the pulp mill in the province. The company chose Abercrombie, across the harbour from Pictou Landing, and the province promised to supply water and waste treatment. Boat Harbour was chosen as the “treatment” site but nothing could proceed without the approval of the Pictou Landing First Nation.

In his book We Were Not the Savages, Daniel Paul writes, “Bureaucrats brazenly informed the People that the harbour’s water would remain so unpolluted that it would support freshwater fish, and that they would still be able to use it for fishing, swimming and other recreational activities.” The Band’s Chief at the time was taken to what was supposed to have been a treatment facility in New Brunswick similar to the one being proposed for Boat Harbour:

[A] provincial engineer took out a small cup and drank what Band officials were told was treated industrial waste effluent. Shockingly, in later investigations by the Band’s legal counsel, it was discovered that the unit toured was not operational at the time and in fact did not come into operation until two years later. What the engineer drank that day was water coming into the facility from a spring-fed brook. [7]Paul, Daniel N. 2000. We Were Not the Savages: A Mi’kmaq Perspective on the Collision between European and Native American Civilizations. Nimbus Publishing, Halifax, p. 221.

Baxter says, “With such a sorry history of betrayal, and so little transparency, why would Nova Scotians trust any of these latest promises from government and the mill?”

In researching her book Baxter discovered 200 studies had been done over the years. In all the reports she read there has never been any mention of a closed loop or zero effluent system.

Meanwhile, back at the meeting earlier this month with fishers and First Nations representatives, Rankin, Nova Scotia’s minister of the Environment, promised the group, “I will not sign off until it is deemed there will be no adverse effect.”

Rankin was referring to the Environmental Assessment process, which will begin as soon as Northern Pulp registers the project with the Department of Environment. But Rankin’s department has already decided the project will undergo a less-onerous Class 1 assessment, which comes with a 30-day public comment phase, instead of one that could last for nearly four months. Chrissy Matheson, media relations for the Department of Environment, says the project was deemed a Class 1 undertaking because it’s considered “a modification to an existing industrial site.”

But given the recent Auditor General’s report, is the Environmental Assessment process one that can even be trusted?

In his report, Auditor General Michael Pickup reported on how the Department of Environment was fairing with issuing and monitoring Environmental Assessments (EA) and the findings were no less than damning. They included:

  • Poor monitoring of the project terms
  • The department had not assessed whether the terms and conditions actually decreased environmental risks
  • Terms and conditions sometimes lack deadlines or reporting requirements
  • Lack of discussion with project owners on understanding terms and conditions
  • No follow-up with project reviewers
  • The Department approves a lot of projects: between 2013 and 2016 it approved 53 of 54 projects presented for an EA

What is perhaps most troubling about Pickup’s findings is the realization that no one is monitoring the terms and conditions, which are attached to project approvals. It’s the terms and conditions which are meant to ensure that risks to the environment are being reduced.

Screen shot of the process that takes place with a Class 1 Undertaking. Graphic: Nova Scotia Government.

And then there’s the issue of the indemnity agreement.

In 1995, the province, under Liberal premier John Savage, signed an indemnity agreement with Scott Maritimes, the original owners of the mill, though the agreement was valid in transfers of mill ownership.

The indemnity agreement guaranteed that the Nova Scotia government would be responsible for the costs of cleaning up Boat Harbour. It also protected the owner of the mill from all “liabilities, losses, claims, demands, actions, causes of action, damages (including, without limitation, lost profits consequential damages, interest, penalties, fines and monetary sanctions)” associated with Boat Harbour. The document also stated that the indemnity includes “the cost of diverting or altering components of the facility in response to claims,” which likely means that the province will be responsible for paying for the new treatment facility, at least in part.

“The bottom line is the company cannot be trusted to operate within the guidelines of its existing industrial approval and the government cannot be trusted to properly monitor or issue any meaningful penalties for failing pollution tests,” says Gunning. “So how are any of us supposed to trust this process?”

Would Closing the Loop Make Pulp “Green”?

The truth about ecologically friendly pulp might be hard to swallow.

It’s not just about eliminating the effluent and reducing stack emissions, though these are pretty central to any claim to being “green.” It’s also about sustainable forestry practices — ones that don’t rely on clearcutting and degradation of forest quality. It’s also about reducing consumer demand of pulp products.

Logging road at the Square Lake clearcut by Northern Pulp. Photo: Linda Pannozzo.

A few months ago I wrote about a road trip to Square Lake on the Eastern Shore to see the kind of cutting that feeds Northern Pulp’s mill. The clearcutting was also located in important habitat for boreal felt lichen — a species that is listed as endangered; a species, along with 71 others in the province that the government is legally obligated to protect but doesn’t. [8]In September 2017, 11 wildlife species were added to Nova Scotia’s list of species at risk. They include: bank swallow (endangered), gypsy cuckoo bumble bee (endangered), monarch butterfly … Continue reading

Northern Pulp is the largest consumer of wood fibre in the province, producing 280,000 tonnes of kraft pulp for export every year. The manufacturing of that pulp, into toilet and tissue paper, paper towel, and photocopy paper, all takes place somewhere else.

Most of the profits are exported too but the pollution stays local, as do the environmental and health costs. These have all been externalized — that is, not paid for by the company but by past, present, and future generations.

If you add in the loans and grants that the province has shelled out, the access to thousands of hectares of Crown land, the millions on studies, the estimated $133 million for the upcoming clean-up, as well the new treatment facility which could cost the province in excess of $100 million, it’s clear the public purse is what keeps Northern Pulp viable. [9]In just four years (2009-2013) the province loans Northern Pulp $107 million: • Land Purchase ($75 million) — to purchase 420,000 acres of forest land • Maintenance & Capital Expenditure … Continue reading

When will Nova Scotia’s dominant development strategy — large-scale resource extraction, huge concessions to corporations, and a close collaboration with international investors — be finally seen for what it actually is: A great corporate swindle?

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

Timeline (Water and Air Pollution)

Water Pollution

Prior to 1967: Boat Harbour is “the other room,” for the Mi’kmaq of Pictou Landing; a pristine tidal estuary.

1960s: Enticed by the Nova Scotian government, Scott Paper Company locates a pulp mill at Abercrombie. The province agrees to supply water and waste treatment. The Band, who were lied to about what would happen to Boat Harbour, reluctantly consents to the deal and are persuaded to accept $60,000 for loss of rights to the harbour.

1967: Boat Harbour is quickly transformed into an industrial waste lagoon. The waters turn brown, murky, and foam-covered, and everything in it dies.

1986: The Band sues the Federal Government, which failed in its fiduciary responsibility to the Band. In 1993 the Band receives an out-of-court settlement of $35 million.

1990: Large fish kills are reported below waste outfall from Boat Harbour.

1995: The province, under Liberal premier John Savage, signs an indemnity agreement with Scott Maritimes, the original owners of the mill, though the agreement is valid in transfers of mill ownership.

1995: The province promises to clean up Boat Harbour in 10 years.

2001: The band signs a memorandum of understanding with Kimberly Clark (mill’s new owners) that sees the band receive almost a million dollars initially and $200,000 a year after that. The company and the province want to be sure the band consents to the continued use of the lagoon. The band ratifies the deal in 2002. That same year, the province and the mill extend Kimberley Clark’s lease of Boat Harbour for 25 years — to 2030.

2003: Province submits documents for a federal environmental assessment plan to reopen Boat Harbour to the sea. But consultants find that doing so will cause eutrophication — and lead to algal blooms and hypoxic conditions.

2005: The 10-year extension comes and goes. The clean-up never happens. In 2006, the deal is amended with December 2008 as the new cleanup deadline.

2008: The provincial licence for Northern Pulp to discharge waste to Boat Harbour expires but is renewed month to month. The province continues to promise band it will close Boat Harbour, but says it will take time.

2009: Band tells province that any further discharge, without its approval, constitutes a violation of its collective constitutional rights. Negotiations begin between band, Northern Pulp and province.

2010: NDP Economic and Rural Development Minister Percy Paris grants $75 million loan to Northern Pulp to help it purchase 475,000 acres of land from Neenah Paper “to ensure a wood supply to the Abercrombie, Pictou Co., pulp mill and protect the land as a forestry asset,” says the company.

2011-12: Northern Pulp hires KSH Solutions of Montreal to study effluent collection and treatment systems, in order to satisfy the mill’s 2011 operating permit. The study looks at modifications to the current system (Boat Harbour) and compares that to an activated sludge treatment (AST) system, which would cost $46 million to install. Closed loop effluent systems are not studied.

June 2014: A pipe carrying effluent from the mill to the lagoons bursts at Pictou Landing, dumping 47 million litres of toxic effluent and triggering a protest, forcing Northern Pulp to close down its operation. Members of the Pictou Landing band blockade the site for a week, not allowing the mill to do the work to get the facility up and running again, kick-starting dormant talks between the government and the band about the ongoing effluent issue.

The province signs an agreement with the Pictou Landing First Nation, committing to what became the Boat Harbour Act.

April 2015: The Boat Harbour Act is passed calling for the closure of Boat Harbour by 2020, cutting short the lease that would have allowed Northern Pulp to operate the treatment facility until 2030. A clean-up is estimated at $52 million.

2016: Northern Pulp selects KSH Solutions to undertake a comprehensive study on what would be required to build a new effluent facility located within the existing mill site. The study is cost-shared with the province, which kicks in $300,000. The study is expected to be completed summer of 2017.

2017: The clean-up, which is slated to officially begin in 2020 is now estimated at $133 million, a bill the Province will be footing. There are an estimated 350,000 cubic metres of contaminated material.

Any day now, the company is set to register the study by KSH Solutions with the Department of Environment. The proposed treatment plant will be Activated Sludge Treatment (AST), with the effluent discharged into the Northumberland Strait. It’s expected to cost in the vicinity of $100 million – again, with the province on the hook for some, if not all of it.

Air Pollution

2006: Power boiler scrubber and filter is offline, resulting in increased dust particulate release.

2008: The province finds out about the faulty equipment at the mill. The same year, Neenah Paper sells 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.

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).

2011: Government issues mill an operating permit and is ordered to do an air quality study and install ambient air quality monitors to measure particulate matter by November 2012. This begs the question, “What are emissions laws in Nova Scotia?” Nova Scotia’s model of approving polluters’ emission limits is on a case-by-case basis. So this means there is no across the board limit for PM emissions, for example, but limits are set for each facility. This piecemeal approach is preferred by provincial governments because they can weigh the economic benefits of a plant against the environmental impact. In other words, it could be decided that the environmental harm is warranted because of the social or economic benefits.

2012: Six years without the proper equipment, the company is finally ordered (through an operating permit) to install air pollution equipment in order to deal with the small ash particles, which have exceeded the permit levels for years.

November 2013: Tests show the mill was producing particulate matter emissions that were 78 per cent above legal limits. However, health minister Leo Glavine says the emissions poses no immediate health risk to Pictou residents.

Summer 2014: Northern pulp comes under fire from community members angry about the smell, smog, and particulate matter in the air. They call on the province to shut down the mill. The problems are linked to aging equipment — namely the electrostatic precipitator, a particulate emissions-control unit, which is not filtering emissions to environmental standards.

August 2014: In response to outcry of Pictou residents, NS Environment Minister Randy Delorey issues a Ministerial Order to ensure that Northern Pulp takes measures to reduce air quality emissions that exceed approved limits under the Environment Act. The Order says that Northern Pulp is in violation of a term and condition of its approval by exceeding air quality stack emissions from a recovery boiler. It is ordered to comply by May 30, 2015 or be shut down.

September 2014: Northern Pulp shuts down temporarily to do work on the power boiler to reduce emissions.

September 2014: Erin Brockovich, well-known American environmental crusader, throws her support to the clean air movement in Pictou.

October 2014: Prominent NS businessman, Paul Sobey (part of the Clean the Mill group) adds his voice to the protests, angry about the emissions and effects on the area’s soil.

January 2015: The mill’s industrial approval expires. The Environment Department under Randy Delorey issues the mill a new industrial approval and five-year operating permit, which includes dozens of terms and conditions including 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 also capped the mill’s annual production at 310,000 tonnes of pulp.

April 2015: The mill appeals the conditions imposed in the five-year approval, saying some were “impossible to meet,” and that the conditions “jeopardize the long-term economic viability” of the mill.

May-June 2015: A $35 million electrostatic precipitator is installed in the mill’s recovery boiler. The power boiler, which was first noted to be problematic in 2006, is not addressed.

July 2015: The province responds to the company’s appeal of the conditions and backtracks by issuing eight changes to the conditions that are favourable to the company, including a review of the cuts in water consumption, which are expected in September.

August 2015: Northern Pulp files documents with the Supreme Court, taking the province to court, stating that it cannot live with one of the conditions in the permit — one that refuses to allow the mill to increase its level of pulp production.

February 2016: Northern Pulp withdraws its court appeal of the Industrial Approval after the minister of environment, Margaret Miller retracts the outstanding items relating to the mill’s water usage and effluent levels.

September 2017: Northern Pulp continues to fail particulate emissions tests from the power boiler (note: new equipment was only installed on the recovery boiler), not meeting the acceptable limit for emissions outlined in the province’s Industrial Approval.

Click here to continue to Part 2 of the “Dirty Dealing” series.

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1 The 2007 AMEC study noted that in addition to suspended particulate material and oxygen demanding material, pulp effluents typically contain some nutrients as well. Effluent nutrient data provided by Neenah Paper for 2003 showed the “final effluent discharge” contained 90 kg/day of phosphate loading and more than 570 kg/day of nitrogen loading.
2 Section on dead zones adapted from my 2013 book The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, pp. 80-81. The study referred to was from 2002 by DFO scientists D. Chabot and C. Couturier.
3 Paper Excellence purchased the already shut down mill, located in the northern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, from Tembec in 2014. By that time, Chetwynd had been started up and shut down at least 12 times in its history. Paper Excellence then invested $50 million in upgrades and shortly thereafter shut it down themselves, making it the 13th time in history.
4 Meadow Lake, a BCTMP mill, was opened in 1992 by Millar Western and was, according to Millar Western, the world’s first zero-effluent, high yield market pulp mill.
5 Interesting to note that earlier in the piece Cloutier seems to contradict the argument she makes here, when she said that since Activated Sludge Treatment was working for Port Hawkesbury Paper, it should be good enough for Northern Pulp. However, she would have known that PHP is a thermo-mechanical pulp and paper mill and NP is a bleached Kraft pulp mill. Entirely different processes.
6 Back in the spring I wrote about FPInnovations, as it was one of the firms hired in an effort to determine if biofuel was a viable sector for the province. They said it was, but it turns out it wasn’t.
7 Paul, Daniel N. 2000. We Were Not the Savages: A Mi’kmaq Perspective on the Collision between European and Native American Civilizations. Nimbus Publishing, Halifax, p. 221.
8 In September 2017, 11 wildlife species were added to Nova Scotia’s list of species at risk. They include: bank swallow (endangered), gypsy cuckoo bumble bee (endangered), monarch butterfly (endangered), tall beakrush (endangered), transverse lady beetle (endangered), evening grosbeak (special concern), yellow-banded bumble bee (special concern), black foam lichen (threatened), eastern waterfan (threatened), Sable Island sweat bee (threatened), and wrinkled shingle lichen (threatened). This brings the total number of species on the list to 71.
9 In just four years (2009-2013) the province loans Northern Pulp $107 million:
• Land Purchase ($75 million) — to purchase 420,000 acres of forest land
• Maintenance & Capital Expenditure ($15 million) – to fund projects in the mill including wastewater pipeline replacement
• Precipitator Replacement Project ($12 million) – to assist in installing a new precipitator projected to remove 80 per cent of the particulate matter currently spewing out of the plant’s 40-year old stacks ($2.5 million of this is forgivable if certain employment targets are met)
• Chip Plant Project ($5.2 million) – to assist in installing on-site chip plant to reduce operating costs
• Natural Gas Project ($4.5 million) – converting two boilers and a lime kiln to burn natural gas ($900,000 of this amount is a grant).
In addition, in 2011-12 the Federal government gave the plant $28.1 million in grants through the Green Transformation Fund to decrease the plant’s environmental footprint. The mill says these funds were spent on a power boiler upgrade, recovery cycle improvements, and odour reduction and that it passed a federal audit in 2012 to “verify that all projects related to GTP funds were completed in a satisfactory manner.”

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

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  1. A stunning bit of investigative journalism Linda. I don’t understand the attitude of either government or industry. These stories fly in the face of good governing and industrial responsibility, neither of which seems to be prevalent in this province.

  2. As you know, Northern Pulp are proposing to install an effluent pipe into the Northumberland Strait when Boat Harbour is legislated to be closed in Jan.2020. Already tensions are beginning to get heated in this area between the Mill, fishers and public. This past weekend at the Coles Store at the Highland Square Mall, New Glasgow, Joan Baxter, author of “The Mill – Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest” was scheduled for a book signing. When people showed up for the signing, they were told by store management that the event was cancelled due to many letters from “unnamed persons” who did not want the book signing to be held and there was the treat of possible violence. The store contacted Ms. Baxter and cancelled the event. It may be rescheduled in the new year. Who were these “unnamed persons”? Northern Pulp management and or mill workers?

    What I find disgusting about this whole thing is that business bowed to big industry, and an author was silenced on something that every person in Pictou County is concerned with – the pollution from Northern Pulp. May I say that this happened in Germany many years ago? The banning of books and knowledge!

    I also have a copy of a letter that Northern Pulp sent to its employees, contractors, woods people, etc. basically ordering them to attend the two public consultation Open Houses for the new effluent treatment facility scheduled at Glasgow Square, New Glasgow, Dec.5th, and the Abercrombie Fire Hall, Dec. 6th. Both of these locations hold 300 or less people. Are Northern Pulp trying to flood the buildings so that the public cannot attend these sessions? Many would think so.

    The “dirty dealings” of Boat Harbour are no where near being concluded here in Pictou County. As I mentioned earlier, things are going to get nasty and it has already started. There are more stories to come from this…

    Perhaps you could contact Joan Baxter for an interview on what happened to cancel the book signing?

    Further reporting on this is greatly appreciated by all in Pictou County who do not want the pipe to destroy our beautiful Northumberland Strait. We do not want mill workers to lose their jobs, but rather the Mill to pony up their own dollars, not tax payer funds, to upgrade this aged Mill to operate environmentally in this day and age.

  3. Beautiful piece of fact-checking!

    I , too, hope that Tim has taken this from behind the paywall so that the fishermen and those who make a living ,more broadly, from lobster fishing get to read this informative and revealing article by Linda. (As Christina MacKay has commented- “…it is essential reading for all Nova Scotians.”)
    To another point,how could anyone consider this a “modification to an existing industrial site” when, in fact, it is a proposed re-location of an industrial site from Boat Harbour/ Pictou Landing to Abercrombie Point, to the north and west by a few kilometres?

    1. I think Tim has pulled this out from behind the paywall, but still: good reporting is worth paying for! Do a value comparison between cable tv versus a few paid news subscriptions. I know not everyone can afford another $10 a month, but most of us can.

  4. They’ve been running radio ads up this way, talking about how everyone is connected to the mill and their parents’ parents worked there.

  5. Please consider making this article accessible to non-subscribers. It is essential reading for ALL NOVA SCOTIANS