North Mountain opponents to aerial herbicide spraying "occupy" camp. Photo: Duke Karsten
North Mountain opponents to aerial herbicide spraying “occupy” camp. Photo: Duke Karsten

Residents who live close to a piece of land on North Mountain in Kings County that was clearcut two years ago and is now slated for aerial spraying of a glyphosate-based herbicide, have “occupied” the site, and they tell the Halifax Examiner that they don’t intend to leave until the spraying is cancelled or the permit expires at the end of 2020.

On August 11, Nova Scotia Environment issued permits to Century Forestry Consultants Limited for aerial spraying of the herbicide on 29 parcels of land covering 831 hectares (2,053 acres) in five counties.

Among them is a permit for spraying 46.6 hectares (115 acres) of a 250-acre lot near Victoria Harbour in Kings County, land that belongs to Five Islands Forest Development.

It is on this parcel that the occupiers have camped out, intent on stopping the aerial spraying of herbicide there, and hoping eventually to get the provincial government to ban the herbicide in forestry practices, not just because of the inherent risks of the spraying but also because of the effect it has on biodiversity and all forms of life in and around the forest.

Century Forestry Consultants aerial spray notification sign Photo: Joan Baxter

A slightly worn and faded notice posted at one access point to the site, which was clearcut for Northern Pulp in 2018, says the spraying will be done with the herbicide Timberline, the active ingredient of which is glyphosate.

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” something Health Canada has refused to recognize, as the Halifax Examiner reported here and here.

Organizing to oppose the spraying

During a site visit on Saturday, one of the organizers of the occupation, Don Osburn, told the Examiner, “On the day the spraying can begin, September 1, we will send out notice that we have occupied the land.”

Don Osburn in clearcut area slated for herbicide spraying. Photo: Joan Baxter

One of the conditions on the spraying permit stipulates that the “aerial applicator shall fly over the treatment area immediately before beginning any pesticide application to ensure that there are no unauthorized people in the vicinity of the target area.”

Obviously, if there are people camped on the land, the spraying cannot go ahead.

Osburn said that since they learned of the spray permit, people in the community have been meeting to organize a series of actions to protest it. There will be a demonstration on Thursday, September 3 from 4 to 6pm, at the junction of McNally and Nollett Beckwith Roads on North Mountain. He said they have also contacted their own MLA, Leo Glavine, and also written to Environment Minister Gordon Wilson, to voice their concerns.

But that is not all, said Osburn:

We’re also going to be demonstrating at the Department of Environment offices in Kentville. And we’re going to organize a series of emergency nature walks, and we’re going to show people the good, the bad, and the ugly world. We’ll take people on walks through one or more of our woodlots that are being sustainably managed along Meekin Brook. And we’ll also do walks up to the clearcut that’s proposed to be sprayed… When people see the magnitude of this clearcut, they will be stunned.

One of the things we’re passionate about is the need to establish sustainable forestry, and I say “establish” because we don’t have sustainable forestry here. And the people that are making efforts to establish it are not being sufficiently supported. All they get are empty words.

Sign at the site of the 2018 clearcut on North Mountain left by contractors with Northern Pulp logo. Photo: Joan Baxter

Osburn, together with his partner Anna, own a parcel of 130 acres where they do organic farming and are also trying to improve the health of the forest and soil.

He recalls watching, along with others in the community, the “hundreds and hundreds” of truckloads of wood that came off the land when it was clearcut for Northern Pulp in 2018, much of it going for chipping for pulp.

The Osburns have joined forces with about a dozen others, including their neighbours Kate and Brian Adams and Pat and Doug Kemp, to organize the protest actions.

“I don’t think you could find a bigger concentration of conscientious woodlot owners,” Osborn says. He says the larger community in the area is “extraordinarily vibrant.”

Doug Kemp is working to restore 80 acres of Acadian Forest on his land, using Jamie Simpson’s book on the subject as his “bible.” Photo: Joan Baxter

Doug and Pat Kemp told the Examiner that they have been working for many years to restore 80 acres of Acadian Forest close to the Bay of Fundy shore. They are also part of the group occupying the land slated for spraying.

Doug and Pat Kemp with seedlings in their Acadian forest restoration project. Photo: Joan Baxter

Asked how many people they expect will be involved in the protest, Osburn said:

I would like to think that a majority of people are on our side. And I would like to think that we could get a good percentage of people out from this community. And our intent for the march that we’re going to have is to try to get a lot of people from a lot further away because of the larger issue of glyphosate spraying.

In Osburn’s view, already the company is not respecting the terms of its permit. It has posted just one notification on the main logging road into the site, but failed to post more at other “access points,” which is a Nova Scotia Environment requirement.

Google image of land for spraying from Viewpoint NS

Osburn says that based on his own observations, he believes the cutting was done right down to the Meekin Brook, something he says would violate forestry regulations. He is also concerned that the logging roads left behind are very steep, so that runoff from the clearcut goes directly into the brooks that cross through the property.

Osburn’s neighbour Brian Adams told the Examiner that the spraying puts the Meekin Brook at risk:

I just can’t believe that they’re going to be spraying a poison on land this close to a brook that runs right through my property. Glyphosate is outlawed in a lot of places. We understand that the company are doing what the government is allowing them to do. But this is not right.

Kate and Brian Adams on their land in the Meekin Brook ravine. Photo: Joan Baxter

Adams says that the “vault,” the ravine through which the Meekin Brook flows on its way to the Bay of Fundy, is an invaluable ecosystem:

There’s all kinds of wildlife down there, from salamanders, frogs, fish, and other animals looking for food.

Recent scientific papers highlight risks of glyphosate

A cursory review of just a few recent scientific and peer-reviewed papers suggests that Adams’ concerns about the potential risks to the wildlife and aquatic ecosystem of glyphosate may be justified.

The authors of a 2018 paper said the results of their laboratory study on the effects of the chemical on honeybees “suggest that high concentrations of glyphosate are deleterious to immature bees.”

A peer-reviewed book chapter from 2019 looked at the toxic effects of glyphosate-based herbicides on an aquatic environment, and found that there has been a “scarcity of studies” on the toxicological effects of glyphosate in aquatic mammals and birds, which “demonstrates the lack of knowledge on the risk of exposure of these groups in aquatic environments contaminated by glyphosate.”

It noted that regulations about how glyphosate is to be applied are “not being obeyed,” as evidenced in the concentrations of glyphosate and its metabolite in aquatic systems. The authors recommended that environmental safety could be improved if forests bordering on rivers were preserved, and if there were more monitoring and environmental education. The authors also recommended a change in farming systems to reduce or eliminate the use of herbicides:

Another sustainable way to achieve this goal is changing the crop production matrix from large scale, that is, conventional-based production model to a smaller integrative-/organic-based production system, with controlled or restrictive usage of pesticides and other agrochemicals.

More recently still, a June 2020 paper published in Neuroscience Letters concluded that “it is likely that exposure to glyphosate may be an environmental risk factor for PD [Parkinson’s disease].”

Canadian government on Timberline herbicide

The spray permits issued by Nova Scotia Environment for 2020 are for two herbicides in which the active ingredient is glyphosate.

JD Irving has permits to spray 21 properties totalling 667 hectares (1,648 acres) in Cumberland and Colchester Counties with the herbicide VP480.

Century Forestry will be using Timberline herbicide.

Canadian government information on Timberline includes the following environmental precautions:

  • TOXIC to aquatic organisms and non-target terrestrial plants. Observe buffer zones specified under DIRECTIONS FOR USE.
  • To reduce runoff from treated areas into aquatic habitats, avoid application to areas with a moderate to steep slope, compacted soil or clay.
  • Avoid application when heavy rain is forecast.
  • Contamination of aquatic areas as a result of runoff may be reduced by including a vegetative strip between the treated area and the edge of the water body.

The Halifax Examiner sent an email to Scott Maston of Century Forestry Consultants, asking about the goal of the spraying, and whether it could be achieved with methods that do not involve aerial spraying of herbicides, and if so, what the cost difference would be. He replied:

The spraying approved is being conducted using a federally approved herbicide to control competing vegetation in areas of either planted trees or naturally regenerated high quality softwood seedlings.

Manual weeding is sometimes (but not always) an option depending on the type of competing vegetation. Manual weeding is conducted using brush saws. It is much more expensive and usually requires multiple treatments to achieve a comparable level of competition control to one herbicide application.

A single manual weeding is generally twice the cost of a single herbicide treatment and with multiple entry requirements, it can be multiple times more expensive than a single herbicide treatment.

Maston added that he and the owner of the land, Five Islands Forest Development, have spoken with several people in the vicinity of the site, and “listened to their concerns.”

“The landowner is currently weighing the options before making a final decision,” Maston said.

The Examiner sent an email to Alexander Manley, president of Five Islands Forest Development, to request an interview. As of publication, he has not replied.

How safe is glyphosate? Depends on whom you ask

Today, glyphosate is the most widely used weed-killer on earth.

It first appeared on the market in 1974, when the giant and controversial agrochemical and biotech company Monsanto sold it under the name “Roundup.” Two decades later, Monsanto began promoting its use on food crops, more specifically on its genetically modified “Roundup Ready” crops, which could be sprayed with glyphosate because they had been genetically engineered to withstand it. In 2018, the German agro-chemical giant Bayer, took over Monsanto for US$63 billion.

Dr. Thierry Vrain speaking about the risks of glyphosate in Illinois in 2018

Thierry Vrain, a genetic engineer who worked for Agriculture Canada before his retirement, has campaigned for 10 years to increase public awareness of the health risks of glyphosate and for tighter regulations on its use.

In a telephone interview, he told the Examiner that to spray glyphosate on food crops is “madness.” Before Monsanto introduced its “Roundup Ready” GMO crops, he said, no herbicide that is a true antibiotic, as glyphosate is, had ever been sprayed on food crops.

As the Examiner reported here, two years after the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, Health Canada published a re-evaluation of glyphosate for public comment, which concluded that “the products containing glyphosate do not present unacceptable risks to human health or the environment when used according to the revised product label directions.” Health Canada then received eight notices of objection, which it reviewed.

In January 2019, Health Canada stated that:

After a thorough scientific review, we have concluded that the concerns raised by the objectors could not be scientifically supported when considering the entire body of relevant data. The objections raised did not create doubt or concern regarding the scientific basis for the 2017 re-evaluation decision for glyphosate. Therefore, the Department’s final decision will stand.

Thierry Vrain told the Examiner that in his view, Health Canada “gets its marching orders … from the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] in the US.”

In her award-winning book about Monsanto, “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science,” the research director of US Right to Know, Carey Gillam, documents many examples of Monsanto’s extraordinary influence on and infiltration of the EPA, and how regulators have failed the public when it comes to glyphosate-based herbicides.

Unsealed court documents from lawsuits in the US claiming that exposure to glyphosate caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma, known as the Monsanto Papers, reveal Monsanto’s history of “ghostwriting, scientific manipulation, [and] collusion with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” as well as “information about how the human body absorbs glyphosate.”

What the regulators say

When Health Canada released its final decision that glyphosate does not present unacceptable risk to human and environmental health in January 2019, it also stated that, “no pesticide regulatory authority in the world currently considers glyphosate to be a cancer risk to humans at the levels at which humans are currently exposed.”

But at what levels are we currently exposed to glyphosate, and how is Health Canada assessing that, if indeed it is doing so?

In response to those questions, a Health Canada spokesperson wrote several paragraphs rehashing what the government lines about glyphosate and its safety that are already available online, beginning with the stock phrase that “Health Canada takes pesticide safety very seriously” and ending with another one: “ … when used according to the label instructions, products containing glyphosate are not a risk to human health or the environment.”

Asked whether any federal government agency had statistics for how much glyphosate is used each year in Canada in agriculture, in forestry, on golf courses, on rail or power-line right-of-ways, or on lawns and gardens, around schools and recreational areas, the Health Canada spokesperson replied:

Health Canada collects information related to the amount of glyphosate for every registered pest control product, made available for sale in Canada annually. As product labels generally include many uses, it is not possible to determine how much glyphosate is used for a specific purpose (e.g., on golf courses or power line rights-of-ways). The glyphosate sales information is provided by the manufacturer and can be broken down to the province of distribution, but not necessarily the province in which it is used. You can find more information on the sales reporting program online. A copy of the most recent published report is attached for your convenience.

That report, from 2017, states that glyphosate tops the list of hundreds of active ingredients in pest control products sold in Canada, and the amount of it sold that year far, far outweighs all the others on the top ten list.

More than 50 million kilograms of glyphosate were sold in Canada in 2017.

The Examiner also asked the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness and Nova Scotia Environment if there was any way of monitoring the actual use of glyphosate in Nova Scotia — and thus human exposure to the chemical — given that it is readily available in stores and widely used in a wide range of settings, and the only permits required are for aerial spraying in forestry.

Nova Scotia Environment spokesperson Rachel Boomer replied:

Nova Scotia Environment does not track total amounts of pesticide being used across the province. To protect human health and safety, we only approve pesticides approved by Health Canada’s Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency as being safe for use in Canada. Your questions about how the risk to human health is measured should be directed to Health Canada.

But I had already heard back from Health Canada, and received no answer to the direct questions of how Health Canada assesses the levels at which Canadians are currently exposed to glyphosate, or even if such an assessment was being done, which presumably would determine whether exposure levels constituted a health risk, given the wide range of settings in which glyphosate is used – including forests and farms.

History repeating itself

Glyphosate is certainly widely used on farms throughout Nova Scotia and across Canada. Glyphosate-based herbicides are widely used to kill weeds in fields of crops such as corn, soybeans, sugar beats, alfalfa, and canola, which have been genetically engineered to be herbicide resistant.

Glyphosate sign in corn field Kings County. Photo: Joan Baxter

Even to get to North Mountain in Kings Country, one has to pass countless farms with expansive fields of corn, and signs indicating that glyphosate-based herbicides have been applied on them.

Asked how she felt about the widespread use of glyphosate in agriculture, one of those protesting the aerial spraying of the herbicide on North Mountain, Pat Kemp, acknowledged that its use to keep mono-cropped farm fields weed-free is “almost a given.” But it also something she would like to see change. Kemp said she would like to see a move towards organic farming that would end the use of glyphosate on farms.

But for now, Kemp — like the other citizens protesting the use of glyphosate to kill off hardwoods in forests in the province — is focussed on stopping the aerial spraying on the clearcut land in her own neighbourhood by occupying the site.

Such protests are nothing new in Nova Scotia.

Thirty-two years ago, June Daley was one of the residents of a road near Tatamagouche who came together to try stop the spraying of herbicide on a woodlot in their neighbourhood. They organized a blockade and camped out on the road for five weeks to prevent the sprayers access to the site.

In a phone interview, Daley told the Examiner that she is saddened but not surprised that in 2020 the clearcutting and herbicide spraying continue, people are still protesting, and that history is repeating itself.

She said their blockade back in 1988 was broken up when the sprayers arrived with the RCMP.

In the end, Daley and two other women were arrested, and the spraying went ahead. But, she told the Examiner, generally they don’t want to arrest people because it just attracts more attention to the issue. And such civic action, she said, does bring people together to defend their communities and the environment.

Daley said she has a message for those camping out on North Mountain to try to prevent the aerial spraying:

What I’d like to say to these people is, you know, good for them for trying to do something. And I think they should call as many people as they can. And give these sprayers a hard time. Stop them.


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Joan Baxter

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

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  1. In the summer of 2001 there were similar actions in Hants County with the goal of raising awareness about spraying of forests, and stopping that spraying. There were many community meetings and gatherings. Quite a few people camped out overnight on the land, we took turns and made sure that there were always people there. Many of the people involved were / are involved in farming in the area.