Cover photo courtesy Gerard James Halfyard.

If Premier Stephen McNeil is wavering on the Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence file, entertaining notions on amending the Boat Harbour Act so that effluent from the Pictou County pulp mill can continue to flow into the lagoon after January 31, 2020, he would do well to put off any decision until he has taken the time to read a new study by three researchers from Dalhousie University, published last week in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Jessica Romo, Meenakshi Chaudhary, and Tony R. Walker, of Dalhousie University’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies (Romo is additionally an employee of GHD, the firm hired to oversee the remediation of Boat Harbor), have done us lay-mortals a huge favour. They went through more than 200 government reports and eight peer-reviewed articles in their search for data on how pulp effluent has been affecting life in aquatic systems in Boat Harbour, Pictou Harbour, and the Northumberland Strait.

Effluent from the pulp mill spends time in settling ponds, an aeration basin and then another 20 – 30 days in Boat Harbour before being released into the Northumberland Strait. Photo: Joan Baxter

They aimed in part to identify gaps that might frustrate the establishment of a “baseline” for comparing changes over time.

They found plenty of gaps, concluding that the reports and studies provide inadequate data. This is how they put it in their measured, understated, and scientific way:

Selection of species, contaminants of concern and sampling locations were ad hoc and often inconsistent with environmental effects monitoring requirements under Canadian federal Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations.

I’m going to take the liberty of interpreting that statement in much more direct and far less diplomatic prose. Basically, the researchers found that the data that should have been collected over the years to provide a clear picture of how contaminants in the pulp effluent have been affecting the health of aquatic life — data the federal government should have been monitoring closely for coherence and compliance with its own laws — turns out to be grossly inadequate as a baseline for any future environmental assessments. In short, it’s all a confusing hodgepodge of partial and missing data, in a hodgepodge of studies.

That said, please bear with me for a bit as I run through some of their more worrying findings. They are fairly complex, and also deeply frustrating for those who place their faith in governments to enforce laws that are on the books to protect environmental and human health, or to undertake environmental assessments based on solid science.

Few studies looked at aquatic life

Despite the huge number of environmental studies that have been done on the mill effluent, only 24 contain data on aquatic life, and of those, just five — conducted between 1989 and 2003 — contain information about concentrations of contaminants in clearly specified locations.

Among the contaminants of concern are highly toxic metals including mercury, and also dioxins and furans, which cause a range of health problems and are known to cause cancer.

Some of the studies conducted between 1969 and 2013 showed that the mill effluent was harming aquatic organisms, and one conducted in 1990 found that species such as American eels, soft-shell clams, and quahogs died off after being exposed to the effluent.

Map of the Boat Harbour area, annotated by the study authors. Google Earth

But between 1967, when the mill’s effluent began to flow into Boat Harbour, and the late 1980s, no studies looked at contaminant concentrations in aquatic species in Boat Harbour, Pictou Harbour, or the Northumberland Strait — where treated mill effluent ultimately makes its way.

Such a study didn’t happen until after Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans found that dioxin and furan concentrations in fish and shellfish in areas affected by pulp and paper mill effluent were higher than guidelines established by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

A 1993 study of aquatic species in Pictou Harbour found concentrations of dioxins and furans in crab and mussels greatly exceeded Canadian Food Inspection Agency guidelines – by as much as four times. Oddly, the study also concluded that this posed no risk to human health.

Regulating pulp and paper effluent … or not

Canada introduced Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations (PPER) in 1992, with the aim of improving the quality of effluent from pulp and paper mills across the country, which until then was covered by no specific environmental legislation.

Under these regulations, pulp mills are to submit environmental effects monitoring (EEM) reports to Environment Canada every three or four years, looking at fish populations, life forms at the bottom of any water body affected by the effluent, and the toxicity of the stuff. Furthermore, according to the paper by the Dalhousie researchers:

Analysis of dioxin and furans in fish is required under PPER, if mills ever used chlorine in their bleaching process. [emphasis in original]

The pulp mill in Pictou County used chlorine until the early 1990s, when it switched to chlorine dioxide, partly to comply with the new PPER and partly to make its pulp acceptable to markets in Europe.

Treated effluent from Northern Pulp Mill heading into the Northumberland Strait. Photo: Joan Baxter

Nevertheless, the mill did use chlorine for a quarter century, so its environmental effects monitoring reports should look at dioxins and furans in fish. They should also all be readily available to researchers and the public.

They are not.

Dioxins and furans contaminating fish were measured in only the first EEM in 1996. In their paper, Romo, Chaudhary, and Walker point out that two forms of the dioxin and furans were not even analyzed in that EEM. They say this contradicts “claims that program requirements were being met.”:

Despite changes in the mills [sic] bleaching process, dioxins and furans bioaccumulate in biota [animal and plant life], are highly toxic and persist in the environment. 

They conclude that:

…continued testing for dioxins and furans in EEM programs using identical study and reference sampling locations for inter-annual comparison of results is warranted. 

In other words, the EEM reports prepared by consultants for Northern Pulp were missing extremely important information on these two extremely toxic substances.

Asked why this was so, a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) told me in an email that there are two “circumstances” under which dioxins and furans would be monitored, and both would be contingent on the concentrations of these persistent pollutants in mill effluent or in fish tissue in the “most recent interpretive report.”

I asked Tony Walker if he thought the failure to include dioxins and furans in the EEMs represented a lack of effective monitoring or a lack of effective enforcement of the regulations. His emailed reply:

I think both. Often those doing the oversight (govt.) are not familiar with previous iterations of the EEMs (due to high turnover and switching to different files).

Furthermore, Romo, Chaudhary, and Walker were not able to access each “most recent interpretive [EEM] report.” They write:

Seven EEM cycles [environmental effects monitoring done every three or four years] were completed, but only four reports were available. Although second, fifth and sixth EEM cycles were unavailable, second cycle results were summarized in subsequent reports … and fifth and sixth cycle results were inferred from seventh cycle. Presumably an eighth EEM cycle report is required based on three to four-year-cycle requirements. 

An email to Northern Pulp communications requesting information on the eighth EEM report has not been answered as of this writing.

Even the four EEM reports the Dalhousie researchers were able to access lacked important information. Only one — the first, from 1996 — contained details on sampling locations and contaminant concentrations at those locations. The others omitted one of both of these crucial pieces of information.

I asked ECCC media relations why only four of the seven EEM reports were available, whether Environment Canada actually had the results of all seven of them, if all seven had been submitted, and if not, how many EEMs the federal department had on record for Northern Pulp.

An ECCC spokesperson emailed me this reply to those questions:

Submissions for all seven Environmental Effects Monitoring (EEM) cycles were provided to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

I sent a follow-up request to ECCC media relations for more precise answers to my questions, but have not yet received them.

Tony Walker told me that he has no doubt all the EEM were submitted to the federal government, and explained that the problem was in obtaining copies of all of the EEMs:

We asked ECCC, but didn’t get the missing ones. My student received a generic email which contained a link to a summary of all EEMs conducted at mills across the country (which we already had), but not the individual reports that we requested.


You’d be forgiven if you think I have a thing about mercury, given how many articles I’ve written about it lately (here and here and here), because you’d be right: I do have a thing about mercury.

The more I learn about this heavy metal that abounds in Nova Scotia, the more terrifying I find it. It causes many horrific health problems, has its own hashtag — #makemercuryhistory — urging an end to its use, and there is even a Minamata Convention on Mercury, meant to regulate, manage, and clean up sites contaminated by mercury around the world.

So why, one might ask — as the Dalhousie scientists do in their paper — has mercury contamination in aquatic life in Boat Harbour, Pictou Harbour, and the Northumberland Strait never been analyzed?

Methyl mercury, the major source of organic mercury for all humans and a toxicant that bio-accumulates in the environment, is a contaminant associated with pulp effluent, according to the paper’s authors. They note that mercury would have been discharged into Boat Harbour from the former Canso Chemicals chlor-alkali plant next to the mill on Abercrombie Point, which was decommissioned after the mill stopped using chlorine.

Mill effluent goes from aeration pond into Boat Harbour lagoon, where it spends another 20 or 30 days stabilizing before going into the Northumberland Strait. Photo: Joan Baxter

In an email, Walker told me that while total mercury — elemental mercury — has been monitored extensively in Boat Harbour, methyl mercury, which is “bioavailable” to living organisms that absorb and accumulate it, has not been monitored. Walker said PPER regulations do not require it. However, mercury sediments in Boat Harbour are at high enough levels, he said, that there a “a high probability of adverse effects on aquatic biota.”

But even that is not all that concerned the scientists.

The very first EEM in 1996 was conducted thoroughly to provide baseline data at specific locations, against which subsequent monitoring of the same things in the same places could be compared. Unfortunately, subsequent monitoring failed to do so.

According to EEM guidelines, the utilization of fish should be considered, and so should any complaints about “tainting” of the flavour or smell of fish or shellfish. This was done in 1996, but was omitted in two subsequent EEMs. Yet, as the Dalhousie researchers note:

Cycle four [2007] indicated that tainting was evaluated in previous cycles, but was removed from EEM requirements, as it was not recognized as an issue of national concern. [emphasis in the original]

I turned again to ECCC media relations to find out what this meant, and who decided that testing for tainting of fish or shellfish was not necessary in the fourth cycle (and indeed in all subsequent cycles for which results were available). The reply:

The PPER does not require the evaluation of tainting. It requires a description of any complaint within the three preceding years to the owner or operator of a mill about fish flavour or odour.

So, not exactly an answer to my questions.

As the scientists had noted — and ECCC studiously avoided addressing in its reply to me — taint testing was not done in EEMs two and three, but the fourth EEM report said it had been, and then out of the blue announced that taint-testing was not necessary any more.

If you’re as old as I am, you may recall the traditional song “Hole in the bucket” performed by Harry Belafonte and Odetta. In the song, “Liza” asks “Henry” to go fetch water, and then grows increasingly exasperated as he comes up with endless reasons for not doing so — there’s a hole in the bucket, his axe is too dull to cut the straw needed to repair the hole, the stone is too dry for him to sharpen the axe, and he has nothing in which to fetch water so he can wet the stone, because there is a hole in the bucket. Henry gives Liza the royal run-around, and wins. The ECCC replies to my questions were making me feel just like Liza.

I then asked Walker for his interpretation of the decision not to evaluate tainting in the fourth EEM report because it was not an “issue of national concern.”

“Not sure,” he replied. “I wonder if this was negotiated over a board room table, or just overlooked.”

The new effluent treatment plant proposal

The paper’s authors point out that the kind of consistent historical baseline data they were looking for — and found lacking — are important not just for the remediation of Boat Harbour, but are also needed for “science-based decision-making in the environmental assessment process” for Northern Pulp’s proposed new effluent treatment facility.

Walker told me that the historical data they were able to find were still “somewhat useful” and that his student and one of the co-authors on the paper, Meenakshi Chaudhary, has been collecting new baseline data, including on methyl mercury, which can be used for the Boat Harbour remediation project. Walker emphasized that their research is not funded by Northern Pulp.

The Boat Harbour restoration project, which NS Lands estimated in 2018 will cost Nova Scotians anywhere between $152 and $325 million, is currently undergoing a federal environmental assessment.

Walker made it clear, however, that the data Chaudhary has been collecting is not related to or meant to help inform the new treatment facility proposed by Northern Pulp, which is currently undergoing a fast-tracked Class I provincial environmental assessment.

The Dalhousie researchers make it abundantly clear that the multitude of studies over the years, including the mandatory EEMs, do not provide those seeking to compare the effect of pulp effluent on aquatic systems over time with the data they need. They conclude:

Overall, lack of consistency in analysis, species used, limited georeference and contaminant data used in EEM studies make comparisons challenging. 

This is worrisome.

Fishermen from Nova Scotia, PEI, and New Brunswick, along with the citizen group, Friends of the Northumberland Strait and others supporting the “No Pipe” campaign opposing the plan to pipe effluent into the Strait, have been calling on Ottawa to undertake a federal assessment of the project.

Pictou Landing Chief Andrea Paul addresses hundreds of fishermen and protesters are July 2018 “No Pipe” rally in Pictou. Photo courtesy Gerard J. Halfyard Credit: Gerard James Halfyard
Pictou Landing Chief Andrea Paul addresses hundreds of fishermen and protesters are July 2018 “No Pipe” rally in Pictou. Photo courtesy Gerard J. Halfyard Credit: Gerard James Halfyard

Given the problems with the data on contaminants in organisms in the marine environment that receives the treated pulp effluent, I asked the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) if this weren’t good reason for it to undertake its own federal assessment of Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent treatment facility, which proposes to pipe very warm treated effluent – up to 85 million litres a day – into fish habitat in the Northumberland Strait after the Boat Harbour facility is closed.

Here is the reply I received from Alison Reilander of CEAA:

Federal departments and agencies, including Environment and Climate Change Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, are participating in the provincial environmental assessment of the Northern Pulp Project being conducted by the Province of Nova Scotia. These departments have been working closely with the province to provide technical support and expertise and we will continue to work collaboratively with the province in supporting next steps in the provincial environmental assessment process.‎

The Minister’s decision whether to designate this project to undergo a federal assessment will be based on a thorough analysis by the Agency of all of the science and information that is available.

Hmm, haven’t we just learned that the all the science and information that is available isn’t quite enough or good enough? That there’s a hole in the bucket of data?

Data, data everywhere

The paper from Romo, Chaudhary, and Walker has come out at a very sensitive time.

In late March, outgoing provincial environment minister Margaret Miller announced that Northern Pulp would need to submit a “focus report” to Nova Scotia Environment as part of the Class I environmental assessment process its proposed treatment facility is undergoing. (Linda Pannozzo’s thorough investigation into the assessment process can be found on the Halifax Examiner’s “Dirty Dealing” landing page.)

Three weeks later the province released the terms for the focus report. It includes extensive work on “marine water and marine sediment,” “fish and fish habitat,” and “human health,” including:

… complete baseline studies for fish and shellfish tissue (via chemical analysis) of representative key marine species important for commercial, recreational and Aboriginal fisheries in the vicinity of the proposed effluent pipeline and diffuser location.

Northern Pulp is also required to conduct a human health risk assessment that must consider “human consumption of fish and other seafood” and “inform the identification of contaminants of concern and updating of the receiving water study.”

All of which sounds very much like the kind of crucial baseline studies and data that the mill should have been providing to ECCC for years, but that the Dalhousie University scientists found had serious deficiencies.

Northern Pulp has indicated to its employees that it will have the focus report ready by September, and it has called repeatedly on the provincial government to amend the Boat Harbour Act to extend its use of Boat Harbour until it can get a new treatment facility approved, up and running.

Until recently, Premier Stephen McNeil has showed no sign of blinking and played tough guy with Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence, refusing to consider any amendment to the Boat Harbour Act.

That Act, passed in 2015 by all three political parties in the legislature, stipulates that the much-polluted lagoon that has been at the receiving end of the pulp mill’s toxic effluent for 52 years, will be closed on January 31, 2020. It will then be remediated as the tidal estuary it once was, which was so precious to the Pictou Landing First Nation that they know it as “A’se’K,” or “the other room.”

A Pictou Landing First Nation painting of Boat Harbour counts down the days to mandated end of the dumping of effluent into Boat Harbor. Photo: Matt Dort

Since January 31 this year, the people of Pictou Landing First Nation have been counting down the days until Boat Harbour closes in 2020, and Chief Andrea Paul has made it clear there will be no compromise.

But last week, McNeil made some muddled comments that suggest he is softening his stance on the issue, telling the CBC’s Michael Gorman that if Northern Pulp gets its “permit” to build the new treatment facility, he has a “responsibility to look at all possibilities as the premier.”

For years, the mill’s proponents have argued that its effluent has always met federal regulations. In her submission to the Law Amendments Committee to contest the passing of the Boat Harbour Act in April 2015, Northern Pulp’s technical manager and board member Terri Fraser said:

Today, the wastewater treatment facility does the job it is designed to do and comfortably meets Federal regulations. The problem with the wastewater treatment system is not its ability to operate efficiently, but rather its location and its legacy. 

Fact is, as Romo, Chaudhary, and Walker have shown, the mill hasn’t been meeting federal regulations for the simple reason that its EEM reports have not been consistent with the Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations. That means there is no way to know what other federal regulations its effluent has — or has not — been meeting.

Joan Baxter is author of The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.

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

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  1. The failure to gather and interpret the needed baseline data is something that Minister Miller identified as having to be done. The resolve of the First Nations, concerned citizens, and the fishermen is unwavering. The resolve of the Premier, supported by a vote that unanimously endorsed the passage of the Boat Harbour Act, was heartening. Any softening by the Premier will be met with fierce opposition.

    The countdown board in Pictou Landing is a ticking clock that all of us are watching. Premier MacNeil got unanimous support for the passage of the bill that led to the LAW we now have in the form of the Boat Harbour Act. We need to obey the law. No back-pedalling; no ‘holes in the bucket’.