Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request reveal that concern about the possibility that Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent treatment facility could result in eutrophication, or the creation of a dead zone in the Northumberland Strait, was raised early on by a senior official with Nova Scotia’s Environmental Assessment (EA) Branch.
Emails between Northern Pulp’s consulting firm, KSH Solutions Inc., and Helen MacPhail, the province’s Environmental Assessment Supervisor, indicate that in April 2017, one day after KSH provided MacPhail with an information package on the project, she replied by asking whether the “potential for eutrophication” was “being considered”?
“Eutrophication is indeed part of our receiving water study work,” KSH replied. “Nitrogen and phosphorus concentration and diffusion are being modelled and are, in fact, the main variable in locating the point of discharge.”
The emails also reveal that KSH expressed early on — well before a quicker Class 1 environmental assessment designation was OKed — that since the project had a “fixed completion date,” any impact to the schedule, as a result of changes due to public consultations, was “of concern.” According to KSH, the new treatment facility had to be up and running by July of 2019 to allow for a “gradual exit from Boat Harbour.” Any snags in the process could make the legislated closure of Boat Harbour in early 2020, from Northern Pulp’s perspective, impossible.
In 2015, the governing Liberals introduced the Boat Harbour Act, legislation that requires Northern Pulp to have a new treatment facility up and running by the end of January 2020 — at which time Boat Harbour will no longer be used as the mill’s waste lagoon and is slated for an estimated $133 million clean-up.
While the project for the new treatment facility has yet to be registered formally with the province, we do know that Northern Pulp is planning to build an activated sludge treatment (AST) system and pipe the “treated” effluent — upwards of 70 million litres per day, equivalent to 28 Olympic-size swimming pools — to an underwater site in the Northumberland Strait, a prime lobster fishing ground.
The project, which could cost the province in excess of $100 million, is also set to undergo the quicker and less-onerous Class 1 assessment, which is followed by a 30-day formal public comment phase instead of one that could have lasted for nearly four months. 1
Chrissy Matheson, spokesperson for the Department of Environment said that the project was deemed a Class 1 undertaking because it’s considered “a modification to an existing industrial site.” However — and this is what has raised the ire of many — the project also handily meets the criteria for a more rigorous Class 2 process because it has the potential to cause significant environmental impacts, including eutrophication, and is of concern to the public.
No oxygen, no life
The documents obtained by the Halifax Examiner indicate that KSH told MacPhail that the “receiving water study,” which was being assembled by the consulting firm Stantec, aims to find out what the Northumberland Strait’s “capacity” is to assimilate the nutrient waste that would be coming from the mill’s new plant. This information would then allow the Nova Scotia Department of Environment (NSE) to establish the “effluent discharge limits” or “end of pipe” limits — a subject we will return to.
As previously reported in Part 1 of the Dirty Dealing series, more than a decade ago AMEC Earth & Environmental was hired by the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to do an assessment of the Northumberland Strait ecosystem. AMEC reported that there were areas in the Strait 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 study identified a number of threats to the marine ecosystem, including rising water temperatures, rising water levels, and pollution — pollution from agricultural runoff, the pulp and paper mill, municipal waste, and fish plant effluent.
Let’s be clear: The complete lack of oxygen kills marine life. Very low oxygen levels can also be lethal to fish and other sea life, including lobster, and can cause large-scale mortality. Low oxygen can also result in sub-lethal effects like reduced growth and trouble reproducing. Fish have been known to abandon low-oxygen areas altogether.
The AMEC 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.”
Given the knowledge that currently exists about the already fragile state of the Northumberland Strait, it would not be unfounded to seriously question the wisdom of pumping an unrelenting and gargantuan volume of oxygen-depleting wastewater into it.
In other words, if the nutrient pollution is already bad, dumping more nutrient pollution will likely make it worse.
A couple of years ago, the enforcement arm of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) began inspecting food processing facilities in Nova Scotia to verify compliance with the Fisheries Act.
Hillaton Foods, a division of Oxford Frozen Foods that processes and freezes carrots for the North American market was one of over a dozen facilities inspected over the course of the project. Hillaton was discharging waste water into the Habitant estuary near Canning.
Through the federal testing program, stickleback fish were placed in the undiluted Hillaton effluent and were to survive for 72 hours. But they didn’t. The de-oxygenated water from the organics in the effluent killed the fish.
The Hillaton factory had operated under a provincial permit that allowed it to continue to discharge the effluent into the tidal waters of the estuary. In fact, a study prepared for Hillaton by engineers Porter-Dillon indicated that once the effluent was mixed with the water in the Habitant estuary, it had no measurable impact on water quality.
But the federal regulators ordered Hillaton to stop discharging waste water into the Habitant estuary.
Unable to find an “economically-feasible solution” to treat the carrot effluent to satisfy the federal regulations, the more than 20-year operation shut down in 2015, affecting 100 seasonal workers.
That got me thinking: If the waste from processing carrots suffocates fish, what would the treated effluent from a bleached Kraft pulp mill do?
Through five decades of operation the mill produced some of the world’s most dangerous chemicals: carcinogens such as dioxins and furans and heavy metals such as mercury, zinc, cadmium, and chromium. Not to mention a mother-load of oxygen-depleting nutrients. Many bleached Kraft pulp mills all over Canada share a similar, and shameful environmental record, and have already switched to AST systems. But the results are still bad. 2
So I turned to the Department of Environment (NSE) and asked them if they could explain what happened at Hillaton and why the two levels of government seemed to have contradicted each other. I also wanted to know how the province ensures that effluent is safe enough to be discharged into a waterway.
So NSE spokesperson Chrissy Matheson arranged a conference call with Stefan Furey, an Engineer in the Industrial Management Unit, and Elizabeth Kennedy, a hydrogeologist and director of the Industrial Management and Water Resources Team. I asked them to walk me through the provincial process.
Furey explained that the province uses water quality standards developed by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), which aim to protect the environment from “chronic toxicity,” or long-term effects. 3
In order to meet the CCME guidelines, explains Furey, the substances in the undiluted effluent should be at numerical concentrations such that once they make their way through what’s called the “mixing zone” or “initial dilution zone” (IDZ) they will be diluted enough in the aquatic environment to be below the CCME standard, which is deemed “protective for fish” in the long term. But the way the consultants come up with the levels that can come out from the discharge pipe, also known as the “end of pipe” values, is to work backwards.
In other words, the provincial regulations are based on what is deemed safe for fish in the aquatic habitat, then calculated back in time and in distance, from beyond the mixing zone, back through the mixing zone and then back to the end of pipe to figure out the acceptable level of discharge.
This is where the “receiving water” study comes in — what matters for the provincial regulators is how much the receiving water (could be an ocean, river, lake, pond) can dilute and assimilate the pollution coming out of the pipe.
In the case of Northern Pulp, Stantec has characterized the dilution capacity of the Northumberland Strait and how it would assimilate the substances in the discharged waste. From there, Furey and Kennedy explain that the consultants calculate backwards using modelling to determine the amount of each chemical or substance that could come out of the discharge pipe without exceeding the CCME guidelines once in the Strait. It’s a process that is very site-specific and highly dependent on the characteristics of the “receiving water,” says Furey.
Furey also says that while the province allows for a “mixing zone,” there are restrictions on how big it can be since concentrations of substances in that zone would likely exceed the CCME standards: “Fish can sense if something is not quite right, so they’ll swim around that mixing zone, so we have to ensure there’s passage for fish to get around that.” Northern Pulp’s Kathy Cloutier says the company aims to limit the impact of the discharge to 100 metres from the outfall.
But over a lifetime, some substances just keep adding up. Ones that do are said to “bio accumulate” and are harmful at even parts per billion — particularly to endangered species, which are often highly sensitive to toxic and bio accumulative substances. 4 Furey says a mixing zone is not allowed for substances that are known to bio accumulate and that the proponent (Norther Pulp) will have to show that the CCME standard is being satisfied by the treatment process itself. And if the water body is already in trouble with concentrations of some chemicals higher than the CCME standards then “you’d have to keep things at the background level.”
But when it comes to setting nutrient effluent limits, the CCME standards don’t. Instead they provide “guidance” for setting limits based on maintaining the existing trophic status of a fresh water body. In an email received as we were going to publish, Matheson said the nutrient effluent limits have never been set for the Northumberland Strait. “The consultant would propose limits in effluent that would maintain the water body in its existing trophic status,” she wrote, adding that there are “many examples in the province where this has been applied to determine the appropriate limits for nutrients in wastewater discharging to a freshwater body,” like the North Preston Wastewater Treatment Plant.
I then asked Furey and Kennedy about Hillaton and the toxic carrots. How could the province say the effluent was safe in the long-term while the feds found it to be acutely toxic in the short term?
Kennedy says that once they “back-calculated” to determine the “end of pipe” values, those values were below the CCME guidelines for “chronic toxicity.” She says the province still stands behind the process. “We feel our [process] was protective of that water body and we enforced our requirements.”
I must admit, things do seem a lot less convoluted and a lot more straight-forward at the federal level when it comes to regulating effluent.
At Hillaton, when the feds finally showed up to do an inspection, they didn’t consider the dilution effect. There was no modelling or back-calculating. Instead they simply exposed fish to undiluted effluent and waited to see if the fish survived or not. It’s called the acute toxicity test. And when you think about it, it makes sense because it reduces the chances of there ever being a fish kill as a result of incomplete mixing in the receiving waters. But it still wouldn’t protect against a chemical leak or malfunctioning of a system.
But Furey says that without any complaints or reports of fish kills in the area, there was no need for the province to ask for acute toxicity testing in the case of Hillaton. He also says that in a “perfect world” both processes work together: the province tests “end of pipe” limits (based on CCME process) on a daily or weekly basis and then supplements that with the acute toxicity testing.
According to Samantha Bayard, spokesperson for ECCC, Northern Pulp is subject to the Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations under the Fisheries Act, which sets enforceable effluent quality standards and prohibits the release of acutely lethal effluent, or effluent that has lethal effects in the short term. She says mills are required to conduct monthly rainbow trout acute lethality tests where at least 10 rainbow trout are exposed to undiluted effluent for a period of 96 hours. If the effluent kills more than 50 per cent of the trout, then the effluent is considered acutely lethal.
Furey explained that any new facility would be subject to both regulators. “They would have to go through our [CCME] process, but would have to not be acutely toxic in accordance with the Federal Fisheries Act.”
In addition, the federal regulations require comprehensive monitoring of environmental effects, including sub-lethal toxicity testing of mill effluent. These tests are conducted on algae and invertebrate species to assess non-lethal effects on growth and reproduction. 5
The emails the Halifax Examiner obtained through the freedom of information request also showed that in September 2017 Northern Pulp received Stantec’s “receiving water study” — the one that models how the treated effluent is expected to mix with the water in the Northumberland Strait, which will be used to help set the “end of pipe” limits. Bizarrely, according to Matheson, the government could not provide me (or the public) with the document until the project has been registered.
But Dillon Consulting, the firm that’s managing the EA for Northern Pulp, has already posted the receiving water study online here, along with supplementary information and a response to questions raised by the public at the December “Open Houses.”
Stantec’s study isn’t the first time the area was studied in this way. In 1969 David Krauel of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada looked specifically at the receiving waters of the effluent from the same bleached Kraft pulp mill at Abercrombie Point.
At that time, the mill (then Scott Paper) was producing 500 tons of bleached Kraft pulp per day and the untreated wastes — as we well know — were being pumped through an underground pipeline to Boat Harbour. Because “accidental spillages and peak production overflows of raw untreated wastes into Pictou Harbour can and do occur,” Krauel studied the flushing characteristics of the area starting in 1965, prior to the construction of the mill and again in 1967 and 1968, following the opening of the mill. His study concluded that the flushing capacity of the area was “inadequate to dilute the effluent below the proposed water quality standard,” at that time.
While the 50-year old study is arguably of limited value for today, it does point to something that is quite relevant: Krauel noted how many of the characteristics of the receiving water were quite variable and unpredictable. For instance, the flushing capacity of Pictou Harbour and the Northumberland Strait is one of the things that influences how quickly the chemicals and nutrients will disperse and assimilate. But flushing capacity is affected by many factors, including stream and river discharge, precipitation, and wind — all of which are difficult to predict and impossible to control. Changes in any one of these or other variables could result in a slowdown in circulation and a build-up in effluent concentrations to potentially critical levels.
Shoddy “Standard of Care”
According to Matheson, it was in May 2017, during the election period, that Frances Martin, the Deputy Minister of the Environment, decided that Northern Pulp’s effluent treatment plant was a “modification to an existing undertaking,” requiring the less onerous Class 1 Environmental Assessment (EA). Martin received advice from EA branch staff, and was acting on behalf of Margaret Miller, the Environment Minister at the time.
According to the documents accessed through the freedom of information request, Helen MacPhail, the EA supervisor, was one of the people providing some key advice to Martin. In May 2017, MacPhail sent an email to four of her colleagues in which she attached the project information from KSH, and wrote: “Please find attached the documents I received from Northern Pulp which I am currently reviewing to determine the EA requirements.”
It appears that at this point, whether it was a Class 1 or Class 2 undertaking was yet to be determined. But by June 7 — a week after the election in which the Liberals won a second majority — the decision had been made. That was when NSE first informed Northern Pulp that a Class 1 EA would be required and sent it hard copies of the Class 1 process.
As previously mentioned, the documents also show that as early as February of last year — three months before the Class 1 EA was decided — Northern Pulp and KSH were concerned about the schedule.
In a letter addressed to Adrian Fuller, the Executive Director of the Inspection, Compliance and Enforcement Division, KSH wrote: “Any design changes arising from public consultations need to be known as soon as possible. When considering a fixed project completion end date, such as in the case of this [effluent treatment plant] replacement project, the potential impact on the schedule is of concern.”
According to KSH, time was already tight. A new treatment facility had to be up and running by July 2019 to allow for a “gradual exit from Boat Harbour.” Any snags in the process could make the legislated closure of Boat Harbour in early 2020 impossible.
In a letter two months later, on the cusp of the election period, Fuller explained to KSH that both Class 1 and 2 EAs require public consultation “as a key component,” but that based on “preliminary discussions,” the project “has the potential to be considered a ‘modification to an undertaking’ by the Minister.”
While public consultations would normally occur after the project has been registered formally with the province — something Northern Pulp says will happen in early summer — it appears the mill has been able to create its own environmental assessment rules. It has been holding public information sessions, releasing information online, and purchasing sponsored content in local newspapers in what it calls a “pre-registration process,” something that appears to be more of a time-saving tactic than anything else. It also claims to be “holding itself to the same standard of care that would be done in a Class 2 [assessment]” by adding up all the “pre-registration” consultation time.
But when it comes to this province, claims like that are cold comfort.
Theoretically, environmental assessments are meant to ensure that risky projects don’t happen, and if they do, the risks to the environment are kept at a minimum. But in practice, that’s not what happens in Nova Scotia.
According to province’s Auditor General, between 2013 and 2016, the EA branch approved 98 per cent of all projects submitted and when it came to monitoring the terms and conditions, which are meant to ensure the environmental risks are being reduced, the department was asleep at the wheel. Auditor General Michael Pickup reported the lack of deadlines and reporting requirements for the terms and conditions, and poor monitoring of whether the terms and conditions were even decreasing the environmental risks.
Given the province’s shoddy record of environmental safe-guarding, the power Northern Pulp has wielded in the province for decades, and the lack of public trust in a system in which the mill has repeatedly failed to operate within the guidelines of its existing industrial approvals, where does that leave the environment?
Not so Fast
The emails obtained by the Halifax Examiner also show that Helen MacPhail asked KSH if it had contacted the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) to determine if a federal EA might be triggered by the proposed project. According to the emails, KSH did contact CEAA’s Nicole Scotney and in that email KSH noted that upon its own “examination of the list of applicable projects…this project would not be subject to the CEAA process.”
It is worth reminding the reader here that in 2012 it was Stephen Harper’s Conservative government that changed more than 70 laws in two omnibus budget Bills, C-38 and c-45 — more formally known as the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act and the Jobs and Growth Act, respectively. These changes systematically dismantled decades of environmental protection to clear the way for the liquidation of Canada’s natural assets and to fast-track oil and gas projects and the building of pipelines. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), as well as the Fisheries Act, received drastic alteration. 6
Kevin Crombie, senior communications advisor with the CEAA, says that as a result of Bill C-38, pulp and paper industries are no longer listed in the Regulations Designating Physical Activities, and therefore do not require a federal EA under the new Act.
However, says Crombie, that doesn’t mean a federal EA is impossible. “Projects that are not listed under the Regulations may still be designated by the Minister of the Environment.”
Asked what would prompt that kind of ministerial decision,” Crombie replied: “If [the Minister] is of the opinion that the carrying out of the project may cause adverse environmental effects.” Crombie also said that the Minister could also decide to designate the project if “public concerns” related to those adverse environmental effects warrant it.
From the sounds of it, a federal environmental assessment for the Northern Pulp project is within the realm of possibility and it looks like a demanding public is required. There’s no doubt that Northern Pulp, and the province, are banking on a much more yielding one.
Linda Pannozzo is an award-winning freelance journalist and author of two books: The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – an Investigation into the Scapegoating of Canada’s Grey Seal (2013) and About Canada: The Environment (2016).
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- 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 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. Apparently the mill and the province are in negotiation about this. ↩
- I asked Northern Pulp spokesperson Kathy Cloutier if there were any other examples of bleached Kraft pulp mills that use Activated Sludge Treatment (AST) systems to treat their effluent prior to discharge and she sent me the list below, also found on the mill’s Frequently Asked Questions page. So I decided to start at the top and plan to make my way through the list, but Crofton presented some uncanny parallels. In January of 2016, the CBC reported that the Halalt First Nation was suing Catalyst Paper, a 60-year old Vancouver Island operation, with two suits totalling more than $2 billion for interfering with land and water rights as well as causing damages to biodiversity, fisheries, and land within the Halalt’s territory. The lawsuits have since been dropped, but according to short video on the DeSmog Canada Web site, the mill, which also happens to be the third largest source of air pollution in British Columbia, also pumped its untreated effluent into the estuary, leaving behind a toxic soup of dioxins and furans. “The carcinogens end up in the phytoplankton, the plankton feed the other animals and at the end of the day ends up in the food chain,” said Chief James Thomas. Where there used to be oyster farms, there is nothing. “You have a huge dead zone with no oxygen levels in this territory,” he says. It is unclear when the mill began using the AST system, like the one Northern Pulp plans to install, but it doesn’t seem to have reversed the permanent damage done to the fisheries, or resolved the mill’s “legacy pollution issues.”
- According to the CCME’s “Site-specific Guidelines,” the numerical concentrations that are recommended are levels that should result in “negligible risk to biota, their functions, or any interactions that are integral to sustaining the health of ecosystems.” The numerical concentrations are derived from “the lowest observed effect level from a chronic study using a non-lethal endpoint for the most sensitive life stage of the most sensitive aquatic species investigated.” The guidelines may also be derived from acute studies if such chronic toxicity data are unavailable. p. 12. ↩
- See p. 17 of http://ceqg-rcqe.ccme.ca/download/en/221 ↩
- Bayard explains that the test organisms are bathed in several concentrations of the same effluent, including undiluted (100 per cent) effluent to find the concentration at which there is a 25 per cent reduction in growth or reproduction relative to control organisms. The effluent concentration that causes a 25 per cent reduction, is called the inhibiting concentration The lower the inhibiting concentration the more sub-lethally toxic the effluent is. If a 100 per cent concentration of effluent does not cause at least a 25 per cent inhibition, the effluent is considered to be not sub-lethally toxic for that test. ↩
- In recent news, the federal Liberals overhauled Harper’s reforms of the Fisheries Act and restored the lost protections — including protecting more fish, as well as non-commercial species, and their habitats — and promised more than $284 million in spending. As well, the feds just announced they are overhauling the Environmental Assessment process with the introduction of Bill C-69, which creates the new Impact Assessment Agency of Canada. ↩