This is a follow-up to Linda Pannozzo’s investigative articles in The Halifax Examiner detailing the issues around Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent treatment and disposal system: Dirty Dealing Part 1: Northern Pulp mill and the province are set to roll the dice with Boat Harbour’s replacement, but a cleaner alternative exists; Dirty Dealing Part 2: Wading through the quagmire of Northern Pulp’s fast-tracked environmental assessment, and; Dirty Dealing Part 3: Elevated levels of cancer-causing air emissions coming from Abercrombie pulp mill, peer-reviewed study reveals.
The plan for the pipe hasn’t even been registered with the Nova Scotia government yet, but it has already deeply divided the normally closely knit community in Pictou County.
The hash tag “#nopipe” has become a rallying cry for fishing families and other citizen groups concerned about pollution from the Northern Pulp Mill. The mill plans to start treating its waste beside the 51-year-old plant and then pipe up to 85,000 cubic metres (85 million litres) of pulp effluent a day directly into the Northumberland Strait — a lucrative inshore fishery of lobster, scallops, herring, mackerel and crabs.
Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul says in an email that she hasn’t heard from one person who supports the project, and “PLFN is a #nopipe community.”
On the other side of the pipe divide are those who support the mill and worry about what would happen should it close. They say that the effluent has been going into the Strait all along from the existing treatment system, which involves settling and aeration, and then up to a month stabilizing in Boat Harbour. They insist that a closed loop system, which would recycle the waste and eliminate the need for the pipe, is not possible.
Kathy Cloutier, Director of Communications for the mill’s parent company Paper Excellence, emailed the following statement to the Halifax Examiner:
Northern Pulp has thoroughly investigated treatment options available to Bleached Kraft mills. Technical options available must include an outfall discharge in order for Northern Pulp to operate — essentially no pipe equals no mill.
Cloutier is referring to a market study commissioned by Northern Pulp that looked at the viability of converting the mill to alternative pulps. The mill now produces what is called a Northern Bleached Softwood Kraft (NBSK); the study looked at converting it to produce either Unbleached Kraft Pulp (UKP) or Bleached Chemi-Thermo-Mechanical Pulp (BCTMP).
Both of the alternatives allow for “zero-discharge” effluent systems. Already in 1996, the Selenga Pulp & Paper Company was operating a UKP mill in Russia. The parent company of Northern Pulp owns a BCTMB mill in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, which it says is the world’s first “zero-liquid effluent-discharge” or closed loop system.
The market study, however, noted these alternatives would not be profitable for Pictou. Since the world demand for “premium tissue and towelling paper” — that is, paper produced with the existing NBSK pulp — “[is] growing, especially in China,” NBSK is the “most competitively viable option by far for Northern Pulp.”
Paper Excellence Canada, with its headquarters in Vancouver and six mills in western Canada, is part of the corporate empire belonging to the billionaire Widjaja family of Indonesia. The Pictou mill exports most of its pulp to Asia where family holdings include one of Indonesia’s largest conglomerates, the Sinar Mas Group, and its subsidiary, Asia Pulp and Paper, with its spotty environmental and economic record.
It doesn’t really matter how wealthy the mill owners are, however, or whether they could afford to reconfigure the mill and find another option for treating the mill’s effluent. That’s because they probably won’t be paying for it.
In an agreement that the Progressive Conservative government of Premier G.I. Smith signed with the mill in 1970, Nova Scotians unwittingly agreed to cover all costs relating to its effluent and to “indemnify and save harmless all claims relating to the effluent.” 1
In 1995, the Liberal government of John Savage signed another even broader indemnity agreement with the mill. 2 That agreement appears to put Nova Scotians on the hook for everything to do with the mill’s effluent — forever. As well, that agreement saves harmless just about anyone who has ever worked in any capacity for the mill, as well as all their heirs. 3
Taxpayers will also be footing the bill for the remediation of Boat Harbour, estimated now at $133 million.
None of this fosters public trust that the government is not compromised when it comes to Northern Pulp.
Nor does it go down well with the #nopipe side.
Ron Heighton, president of the Northumberland Fishermen’s Association, believes the government is in a conflict of interest because it paid for the studies and the proposal for the new effluent facility, and it is now doing the environmental assessment for that proposal. He recalls that in the early 1990s, when a plan was proposed for on-site effluent treatment and a pipeline bypassing Boat Harbour into the Strait near Chance Harbour, then federal minister of fisheries, Brian Tobin, nixed it.
Heighton and the fishermen’s 4 groups are confounded by what they see as the provincial government’s willingness to risk the fishery, which Premier McNeil is showcasing this month in Boston. In a recent press release, McNeil boasts about the “growing value of our fishery exports to nearly $2 billion in 2017,” when Nova Scotia exported $947 million worth of lobsters, $314 million of crabs, and $144 million of scallops.
Catch from the Nova Scotia Gulf along the Northumberland Strait is part of the upturn in exports — in the Gulf, there are 620 lobster licenses, of which 33 are First Nations fishermen. More than 3,000 lobster fishermen in three provinces depend on the southern Gulf fishery for their livelihoods.
Fishermen are critical of the “Preliminary Receiving Water Study” conducted by Stantec, saying that some of the data it used are outdated. They worry that the very warm, freshwater-based effluent will contain toxins that will harm lobster larvae, which float on the surface of the water for up to 12 weeks.
Despite numerous information sessions that Northern Pulp and its consultants have held with fishermen from the Pictou Landing First Nation and from other associations representing fishermen who work the Strait, the mill has failed to convince fishermen that the proposed pipe is safe.
In late February 2018, the fishermen’s groups said they were suspending further meetings with Northern Pulp until an alternative to the pipe is proposed.
At the moment, neither side looks willing to blink, let alone back down.
Asked recently about the tension in the county, Liberal MP for the Central Nova riding, Sean Fraser, replied, “On both sides I sense there’s so much tension to the extent that if this goes the wrong way for one group or the other, this could turn into more than free expression and protest. It could turn into violence.”
Fifty years of disagreement
Divided opinions about the Pictou pulp mill are nothing new. The controversy began even before the mill went into operation in 1967. While many welcomed the arrival of the big, new Scott pulp and paper plant because it brought jobs to Pictou County, others did not.
Among the first to feel the devastation that the mill would bring were the Pictou Landing First Nation, who had been deceived into signing over Boat Harbour for the mill’s effluent. As reported previously by Linda Pannozzo, government officials had lied to the First Nation, saying that the effluent would not harm its precious tidal estuary — the estuary was so important that the Pictou Landing First Nation called it “A’Se’K,” meaning “the other room.” Soon after the pulp waste began to flow, all the fish in Boat Harbour and at its outlet to the Northumberland Strait were dead.
Fishermen complained that after the mill opened, their lobster catches dropped. In the decades that followed, concerned citizens continued to protest the pollution the mill pumped into the air and the effluent that defiled beautiful beaches in the area.
At least a dozen different groups formed over the years to demand that the government of Nova Scotia take action to reduce the air and water pollution, protect human health in Pictou, and stop the clearcutting and herbicide spraying promoted by the pulp industry throughout the province.
One government after another ignored their pleas and protests, while mill supporters argued that the unpleasant odour coming from its stacks was just the smell of money. 5
To keep the peace, people tended to avoid voicing their opinions out loud to family, friends, and neighbours who did not share them.
Signs of a deeper divide
But today, there are signs – literally – that the previously quiet divide is set to become far more acrimonious. While fishermen say they do not want to see anyone at the mill lose their livelihoods, they also say they don’t intend to allow the mill’s effluent to jeopardize theirs. Large “NO pulp waste in our water ” signs have been put up all over Pictou County and along highways in the province.
In February, the WearWell garment factory in Stellarton started making and selling hoodies, hats, and flags emblazoned with the words “NO PIPE” over a skull and crossbones. Vitriolic exchanges on the company’s Facebook page show the depth and intensity of the division.
At the same time, Northern Pulp has been blanketing the airwaves with advertisements and newspapers with “sponsored content” (paid advertising disguised as news) proclaiming the mill’s economic importance to the province, saying that without it sawmills could not survive. One piece of sponsored content reveals Northern Pulp’s confidence that the proposed pipe will go in, stating that “when” its new Activated Sludge System goes into operation by January 2020, “the only significant changes will be ones that improve its environmental impact on the area.” The ad says the project will be registered in late spring 2018.
The fishermen say they have no intention of giving up, and they, along with the citizens’ group Friends of the Northumberland Strait, are doing their own research to challenge Northern Pulp arguments that the proposed system is safe.
For now, despite the divide, a tense peace prevails in the county, much to the credit of the citizens themselves.
A deficit of trust and transparency
Efforts to interview mill employees were not successful. An email to their union, Unifor, went unanswered. Mill spokesperson Kathy Cloutier agreed to ask some employees and union executive members if they would agree to be interviewed for this article, but said there was not a “comfort level by them to participate in an interview.”
A mill insider who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity says he believes it would be possible to configure the mill and the effluent facility to recycle more of the effluent, but that it would cost “mega-bucks.” He feels the mill should be more transparent about what’s in its effluent.
“If only Kathy Cloutier or [Northern Pulp general manager] Bruce Chapman had sat down a year ago, or a year and a half ago, and said [to the fishermen], ‘these are our plans, and what do you think of this?’ and let them in … this wouldn’t be as bad.” Instead, “all of a sudden the fishermen hear they’re going to put a pipe out into the Strait and diffuse it. Wouldn’t you be up in arms?” And, he adds, there is a lot of “fear-mongering” that affects the workers, making the morale “poison.”
On the #nopipe side, there is no shortage of people willing to speak. One is Cory Rankin, whose family has been fishing for generations at the east end of Pictou Island, just a few kilometres from the proposed outlet of the pipe. He began fishing with his father almost as soon as he could walk. After his father died 14 years ago, Rankin fished with his mother for years.
He spent seven winters working in the Alberta oil sands to earn money to put towards fishing. Last year he used his savings, but still went deeply into debt, to buy gear and his mother’s licence.
Rankin worries that if the pipe goes in he will lose everything. He is one of several fishermen who protested against the pipe at the entrance to the pulp mill late last year. Asked if he’s lost friends because of the impasse, Rankin said that one of his best friends works at the mill. “He told me that if I’m going to block the road over there, I should just let him know so he can call in sick and he’ll bring me coffee.”
Ryan Fleury is another Pictou native whose family has been fishing off Pictou Island for a long time. His maternal grandfather took up lobster fishing when he returned from the Korea War. He later sold his licence and gear to Fleury’s father, who fished for 33 years.
“Pretty much any time I wasn’t in school I was fishing,” Fleury recalls. “In between exams I would go fishing. Even when I was in high school, I went to safe grad until 2am, and then my dad picked me up to go out and take the traps in.”
After that, Fleury joined the military as a reservist with the Construction Engineers. While in training with the Nova Scotia Highlanders, he got to know fellow reservist Nicole MacKenzie, who is now his wife, and active with the new citizens’ group Friends of the Northumberland Strait.
Fleury served for eight months in Afghanistan, dreaming the entire time of coming home, building a cottage on the family land on Pictou Island, and going back to fishing. But he still spent winters in Alberta to avoid being smothered with debt when he bought out his father, and invested heavily in the licences and gear to fish crabs and scallops.
“For those five years I would fish right to Christmas, come home, put everything away, then go jump on a plane to go west and work right to March, and then come home,” he says. “There was no break. It was just go, go, go, go.”
These days, Fleury spends his winters building traps, fixing nets, and doing upkeep on the boat. “It’s a full-time job with six months of pay and six months of spending,” Fleury tells me.
Getting into the fishery is expensive, he says, and young people are taking out loans that will take decades to pay back. He says the fishery in the Strait employs thousands of people, including crews that work on the boats and people on the wharf and in the fish plants and fishing stores. “I’d say 95 per cent of what I spend in a year stays in this town.”
Fleury thinks the stand-off between the mill and the fishermen is the creation of the “higher up” people at Northern Pulp who want to make the “lower people fight” to draw attention away from the risks of the pipe.
“It’s definitely hard on people,” he says. “People used to talk to you, and now everybody’s kind of avoiding it, or really being confrontational about it.” He says he doesn’t blame mill workers. “They’re guys just like me trying to make money and support their families.” Rather, he believes the mill owners — “the guys making billions of dollars” — are the ones that could solve the problem and ensure mill effluent does not go into the fishing grounds.
Fleury and Nicole MacKenzie are adamant that there will be no pipe, but they also don’t want to see any conflict or cause hurt. Their neighbour works at the mill and their children all wait together each morning for the school bus, so they decided not to put a “No pulp waste” sign in their driveway.
Fleury believes that if the pipe goes into the water, it would drive a wedge into the community that would never go away. “We’re not being heard. We’re not being listened too,” he says. “If something doesn’t happen, it’s going to end really, really bad in this county. It blows me away.” He says the tension is “building and building and building,” and the government is just turning a blind eye.
Nova Scotia government and Northern Pulp forge ahead
At a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee of the Nova Scotia legislature in February 2018, Deputy Environment Minister Frances Martin defended the decision to go with the shorter, 50-day Class 1 environmental assessment for the project. 6 Such an assessment begins the day a project is registered with the province, and allows for just 30 days of public review. Martin said Class 1 was “no less rigorous” or “less stringent” than a Class II assessment, although the latter would involve a full Environmental Report that could take up to two years, an independent panel, and allow the government 275 days to make a decision.
Pictou East MLA and candidate for the leadership of the PC party, Tim Houston, said at the Public Accounts meeting that it looked as if the Department of Environment had made a “judgement call” in choosing the Class 1 assessment. In doing so, Houston said the department had failed to “instill the confidence of the community” and that this was “causing a lot of uncertainty for a lot of jobs.”
Martin insisted that Class 1 was appropriate, saying, “while the effluent treatment plant will be a new plant and a new design, it is a modification to an existing undertaking and that is the pulp mill itself.”
Two days after that exchange, a delegation from Northern Pulp – General Manager Bruce Chapman, Technical Manager Terri Fraser, and Guy Martin of KSH Solutions – found itself trying to defend the project in front of the PEI legislature’s Standing Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries. Elected officials on the other side of the Northumberland Strait were not easy to appease.
When they asked what studies had been done on the effects of pulp effluent on lobster larvae, they were told that was “one of the studies that we are currently undertaking or trying to undertake to study those effects.”
The PEI MLAs were not to be fobbed off with vague answers. Liberal MLA and Government House leader Alan McIsaac wanted to know whether there were actual tests ongoing to gauge possible effects on herring eggs and spawning grounds. Terri Fraser replied that there were not. But, she said, “currently we’re looking at getting experts that can do those things and understanding the right time of year that that happens.”
PC MLA Colin LaVie wasn’t letting it go. He asked if there would be discharge both winter and summer.
“Yeah, it’s 24/7,” said Guy Martin.
LaVie responded; “It’s 24/7. When is molting season for lobster?”
The three Northern Pulp spokespeople exchanged embarrassed glances before Chapman eventually replied. 7 “That will be part of our study. That we don’t have. We are not the biological experts. We are hiring biological experts to put together those facts.”
LaVie, clearly taken aback that the Northern Pulp reps didn’t know this basic fact about lobsters in the Strait where they wanted to pipe effluent, quipped, “Are you serious?”
PC MLA Darlene Compton expressed her disappointment that the Northern Pulp delegation had refused to participate in a public meeting with PEI’s Eastern Chamber of Commerce. MLA and Green Party leader, Peter Bevan-Baker, suggested that Northern Pulp didn’t have an incentive to produce clean effluent if the public purse in Nova Scotia was going to pick up the cost of the system.
Concern about the pipe goes right to the top in PEI. In January, Liberal Premier Wade MacLauchlan wrote a letter to Premier McNeil and to Catherine McKenna, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, saying that he shared the concerns of the fishermen on both sides of the Strait. The plan is “not a project that our government will support as proposed,” he wrote. He asked that “a more comprehensive assessment take place and that the impact on Island fisheries is taken into consideration as part of this work.”
Only two Nova Scotia MLAs have spoken out forcefully against the Class 1 assessment and the proposed pipe – PC Karla MacFarlane, interim leader of the PC party and MLA for Pictou West, and NDP environment critic, MLA Lenore Zann.
One candidate for the leadership of the PC party, John Lohr, went the other way and openly supported the Class 1 assessment, suggesting that the use of Boat Harbour be extended, and erroneously claimed that McNeil’s Liberals had “unilaterally announced” its closure.
Apparently Lohr is unaware of the years of struggle, suffering and betrayal that led up to the Boat Harbour Act, which Chief Andrea Paul summarized in an email. “My ancestors, past community leaders, community advocates, and elders have fought against this ‘crime against the environment’ for decades,” she wrote. “For over 50 years we have been fighting to right this injustice. There are over 50 years of mistrust here. Over 50 years of lies. Over 50 years of losses. Over 50 years of my community members suffering at the hands of this Mill. Over 50 years of fear and worry and anger.” She said the government can’t expect people to have faith in its “science based approach,” and that there is a need for a holistic approach in the environmental assessment.
So far, there is no sign that the Nova Scotia government is considering any compromise, or that federal government intends to get involved. When she was asked at the NS Public Accounts Committee meeting whether there would be a federal environment assessment of the project, Deputy Environment Minister Martin said they didn’t anticipate one.
But Northumberland Fishermen’s Association president Ron Heighton is hoping that the federal Department of Fisheries (DFO) will step in. He says that he recently asked provincial Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture, Keith Colwell, why his department wasn’t involved in the environmental assessment and protecting the important Northumberland Strait fishery, and was told this was an issue for the federal minister.
This is not what Central Nova MP Sean Fraser says. In an interview, he pointed out that the environmental assessment is provincial, and that the only authority that the federal fisheries minister has is to look at the impacts of the physical pipe itself. What is coming out of the pipe is the purview of the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Even then, Fraser explained, it is just a question of whether the effluent exceeds limits set by the Fisheries Act that explicitly allows for the discharge of effluent from pulp and paper mills in federally regulated waters.
“They don’t have the legal authority to look at the very important local environmental factors like whether there is a lobster spawning ground that could be impacted,” he said, or “whether there is sufficient flushing in that part of the Northumberland Strait to deal with the concentration of what’s being pumped into federally regulated waters.”
Fraser said he is looking to recently announced changes to the federal regulations to understand whether they might be relevant, and added, “This is by no means a foregone conclusion in my opinion.” He hopes to be a “bridge to have the two sides understand one another more fully and potentially come up with a solution that will protect the interests of all sectors.”
Ron Heighton is not impressed by what he calls Fraser’s fence-sitting. He says the solution is already there; the mill has to be changed so it doesn’t need an effluent pipe.
His final words on the subject? “We’re telling you there will be no pipe in the Strait.”
- Agreement between Her Majesty the Queen and Scott Maritime Pulp Limited. September 30, 1970. ↩
- Indemnity Agreement between Her Majesty the Queen in right of the Province of Nova Scotia, as represented by the Minister of Supply and Services and Scott Maritimes Limited. December 31, 1995 ↩
- Bernard Miller, the lawyer who represented the mill at the time and whose signature is on the indemnity agreement, was also a registered lobbyist for Northern Pulp between 2009 and 2014. He left private practice in 2014 to work for the Liberal government of Stephen McNeil as Deputy Minister of the Office of Priorities and Planning. In September 2017, he was named Deputy Minister of the Office of Strategy Management. According to a CBC report, after the province’s conflict of interest commissioner said he would be in a conflict of interest before his appointment in 2014, Premier McNeil said, “Things that we’ve been doing with Northern Pulp have been completely isolated from Bernie.” So if there are any weak links in that indemnity agreement with Northern Pulp, Miller isn’t at liberty to say. ↩
- Editor’s note: there is no correct choice between the traditional “fishermen” versus the gender-neutral “fishers” — either word was guaranteed to offend. See a long Facebook discussion of the issue here. In the end, we decided on “fishermen” as that is what many women who fish in Atlantic Canada prefer to be called. ↩
- As far back as 1992, pulp experts were looking at alternatives to kraft pulp mills because of their negative environmental impacts and smell. In his paper, “Alternative & Emerging Pulping Technologies: Non-Kraft Processes,” which he presented at the International Symposium on Pollution Prevention in the Manufacture of Pulp & Paper held in Washington, DC that year, Bruce I. Fleming noted that no kraft mills had every been built in Germany because of the concern over odour problems and because emission regulations are strict. It also notes the advantages and disadvantages of the various pulping processes, which were already available 26 years ago. Paper available at: http://infohouse.p2ric.org/ref/29/28914.pdf ↩
- In her article for the Halifax Examiner, “Dirty Dealing, Part 2: Wading through the quagmire of Northern Pulp’s fast-tracked environmental assessment,” Linda Pannozzo discusses the internal correspondence that led to this controversial decision. ↩
- This exchange occurs at 1:07:17 during the February 16 meeting of the PEI Standing Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries with Northern Pulp. The video is available at: http://www.assembly.pe.ca/index.php3?number=1055716&lang=E ↩