Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion may be hot in the media spotlight right now, but on the East Coast, another industrial storm is brewing.
Nova Scotia's Northern Pulp mill has proposed a 10-kilometre pipeline to transport up to 85 million litres of warm pulp effluent every day directly into the Northumberland Strait — a beautiful part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and a lucrative fishing ground.
The idea of dumping treated waste from the Northern Pulp's mill in Pictou Country directly into such a rich ecosystem — without giving it an additional month to settle, as it currently does in a lagoon before it is slowly released into the Strait — has many First Nations, fishers, citizens and local communities up in arms.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau turned his back on them as he declined to commit to a federal environmental assessment of the pipeline proposal, justifying his decision as respect for "provincial jurisdiction." In other words, the prime minister is satisfied that the Nova Scotia government can handle the assessment.
But with the province being responsible, through an indemnity agreement, for part of the project's design and cost — critics are worried that the pipeline won't receive a thorough, unbiased assessment. To boot, they add, the Northern Pulp mill's foreign corporate owners have troubling ties to illegal deforestation abroad.
Sowing division in Pictou County
The pipeline in question is for Northern Pulp's 51-year-old bleached kraft pulp mill in Pictou County on the north shore of Nova Scotia. If approved, it would be almost a metre in diameter and 10 kilometres long, carrying millions of litres of effluent and releasing it through six dispersal pipes into the Northumberland Strait.
The Northumberland Strait separates Prince Edward Island from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the Gulf of St. Lawrence; an extremely rich and sensitive fishing ground, on which thousands of people across the Maritimes depend for fisheries and tourism.
Critics of the project fear it would pollute coastal waters, harm crucial fish habitat and marine life, and put those vital industries at risk. As a result, the plan has sparked widespread opposition and public protest, spawning the hashtag, “#NOPIPE.” It has been condemned by fishermen, tourism operators and First Nations groups, sowing division in traditionally tight-knit communities in its wake.
The project also comes with a form of ultimatum for government regulators:
Public protest over this pulp pipe proposal has spawned the #NOPIPE movement, which has sown division among communities in Pictou County. #nspoli #novascotia
“No pipe equals no mill,” is how Kathy Cloutier, director of communications for Paper Excellence, the mill's parent company, put it to me in an email.
Paper Excellence acquired the Northern Pulp mill in 2011, and owns four other mills in Canada — three in British Columbia and one in Saskatchewan, as well as two in France. While the company has headquarters in Canada, its larger holding company of Paper Excellence B.V. operates as a subsidiary of Asia Pulp and Paper Group, and is based in the Netherlands.
Paper Excellence is the fifth largest foreign corporation that has owned the mill in Pictou since it opened in 1967, and has ties to a shocking history of ripping up endangered forests in Southeast Asia.
A dismal overseas record
Paper Excellence is part of the corporate empire of the billionaire Widjaja family of Indonesia, which also owns Sinar Mas Group. Sinar Mas despite its denial, has ties to devastating fires and deforestation in Southeast Asia under its international trade name, Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), and the dubious distinction of being responsible for Asia's worst corporate default — US$ 13.9 billion in 2001 after a 20-per-cent plunge in global paper prices over three months.
APP pledged to clean up its act, following boycotts in 2012 of its paper products by several prominent corporate brands, as a result of its role in illegal logging in Indonesia. It adopted a “forest conservation policy,” developed with support from Greenpeace International to help it accomplish this, but in May 2018, after evidence emerged that APP was still responsible for destroying forests in Indonesia — Greenpeace ended all engagement with APP and Sinar Mas Group.
None of this appears to have dampened relations between the Nova Scotia government, however, and the owners of the Northern Pulp mill. As has been the pattern for the past half-century, the province seems intent on doing the mill’s bidding.
How Nova Scotia was captured by a pulp mill
In 2017, Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment determined that the pipe warranted a "smaller in scale" Class I environmental assessment, which takes just 50 days and leaves the final approval decision to the minister of environment. Critics say the pipe should undergo a more thorough Class II assessment, which takes 275 days and involves an environmental assessment panel.
Among those calling for the Class II assessment are Karla MacFarlane, interim leader of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party, and Tim Houston, who represents Pictou East in the legislature and is vying for the leadership of the PC party in the October convention.
Before the decision to proceed with a Class I assessment had been made however, Nova Scotia's Department of Environment had concerns about the pipe plan. According to internal emails obtained through freedom of information legislation by Linda Pannozzo for The Halifax Examiner, officials were worried that the mill’s plan to treat effluent on-site in a new activated sludge system, and then pump it through a pipe into the Strait, had the “potential for eutrophication,” meaning excess nutrients could lead to oxygen depletion.
Then, the consultants working on the pipe proposal, KSH Solutions Inc, reminded Department of Environment officials that there was a “fixed completion date” for the project, and any delays stemming from public consultations were “of concern.” The new system had to be operating by July 2019, so that by January 2020, the mill’s effluent would no longer flow into, and settle in Boat Harbour, as it has done since 1967.
Boat Harbour is Nova Scotia’s largest environmental contaminated site and an egregious example of environmental racism.
Threats of expropriation
In the 1960s, when the PC government of then-premier Robert Stanfield was pushing to get the pulp mill built, it engaged two government officials to convince the Pictou Landing First Nation to sign over Boat Harbour, their precious tidal estuary, to the government for mill effluent.
In his book, We Were Not the Savages, Mi’kmaq scholar Daniel Paul describes the way these officials obtained control of Boat Harbour as "full of deceit and maliciousness." The officials took the chief and a councillor from Pictou Landing First Nation to a non-functioning domestic sewage facility in New Brunswick in 1965, and told them the water in their estuary would be just as clear and clean as the fresh, spring-fed brook at the site. They were also told, he wrote, that if they didn’t sign an agreement allowing the government to use Boat Harbour for the mill’s effluent, it would be expropriated.
Deceived and under pressure, the chief and councillor agreed, signing away the tidal estuary that had provided their First Nation community with much of their food for countless generations. Boat Harbour immediately became a toxic wasteland.
To entice Scott Paper to build the mill, the provincial government had already bestowed numerous expensive gifts on the American pulp and paper giant. Among them, as detailed in the the 1965 Scott Maritimes Limited Agreement and a report for the Nova Scotia cabinet in 1965, were: a causeway linking the Town of Pictou with the mill site on Abercrombie Point; a dam across a river to provide the mill with more than 100 million litres of fresh water daily; a 50-year lease on 230,000 acres of Crown land with rock-bottom stumpage rates; and a slew of generous tax breaks.
To top it off, on Sept. 30, 1970, the government of former Progressive Conservative premier G.I. Smith signed an unprecedented agreement with Scott Paper, in which the province agreed “at its cost,” to “own, operate and maintain the Effluent Treatment System and continue to accept in such system all effluent from the mill.”
Pouring millions into the mill
Over the years, successive provincial governments in Nova Scotia have lavished hundreds of millions of dollars on the mill in loans and grants. The federal government has also chipped in millions of dollars for environmental improvements.
Even that’s not the end of the government largesse.
In 1995, the Liberal government of former premier John Savage signed an indemnity agreement "saving harmless" anyone who worked for the mill from all responsibility for environmental problems with its effluent. It also made the government — that is, the people of Nova Scotia — responsible for effluent and reconfigurations of the mill related to its treatment and disposal, forever.
As it stands, the effluent – an average of 80 million litres daily – flows from the mill through a pipe under inner Pictou Harbour, then comes onshore at Pictou Landing. There it goes into settling ponds, then an aeration basin for a week before it flows into the 350-acre Boat Harbour lagoon. It is released through a dam into a small cove in the Northumberland Strait, following up to a month of further settling.
The new plan would remove that crucial last step: the effluent would be treated on-site in a new facility beside the mill and go directly into the Strait, without the settling of solids that currently happens in Boat Harbour.
In 2014, that effluent pipe ruptured, spilling 47 million litres of toxic effluent near sacred Mi’kmaq burial grounds. The people of Pictou Landing First Nation set up a blockade, joined by others concerned about the mill’s air and water pollution over the years.
The mill was shut down while the pipe was replaced and the First Nation issued an ultimatum to the current Liberal government of Premier Stephen McNeil: legislate the closure of Boat Harbour.
One year later, McNeil’s government, with the support of both opposition parties, passed the Boat Harbour Act, which stipulated that no effluent could flow into the lagoon after Jan. 31, 2020. After that, Boat Harbour would be remediated and restored to its former state.
For a time, there was optimism that the province would finally crack down on the mill for its poor environmental performance over the years.
Those hopes were dashed when, in late 2017, Northern Pulp announced its plan to pipe effluent directly into the Northumberland Strait, and the government decided to go with a Class I environmental assessment.
Appearing before the Public Accounts Committee of the Nova Scotia legislature in February, Deputy Environment Minister Frances Martin defended the Class I assessment as appropriate, claiming that, “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.”
Northern Pulp, however, clearly states that it is designing and building a “new treatment facility.”
This decision to go with the Class I assessment for the treatment facility became even more inexplicable when the Department of Environment announced that it was requiring the more extensive Class II assessment for the clean up of Boat Harbour.
Nova Scotia in a conflict of interest
Like Kinder Morgan's embattled Trans Mountain expansion, the proposed pulp pipe is pitting provincial governments of similar political stripes against each other – in this case, two provincial Liberal governments in Nova Scotia and P.E.I.
Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLaughlan wrote McNeil and federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna in January this year, demanding a “more comprehensive assessment” that involves his province.
In response, a spokesperson for the Nova Scotia government said that P.E.I. would have a chance to submit its comments once the proposal had been registered for a provincial environmental assessment. Given that such commenting is the right of every citizen, this response was a firm snub of one Liberal premier by another.
As a result of the government’s indemnity agreement with the mill, Nova Scotia taxpayers appear to be on the hook not just for the new effluent and disposal facility, but also the reconfiguration of the mill to accommodate the change. To date, neither Northern Pulp nor the Nova Scotia government has divulged the cost of the new facility or who will be paying for it. However, local media cite a 2015 letter from Northern Pulp to the government saying that the cost might be in “excess of $100 million.”
Nova Scotians will also cover the costs of the Boat Harbour clean up, estimated at $133 million and counting.
In 2002, the government of former premier John Hamm passed an Order in Council extending the mill’s lease for the use of Boat Harbour until 2030. Hamm now is chair of the board of Northern Pulp, and the mill manager, Bruce Chapman, has been reminding the province of this commitment, saying that Northern Pulp will expect to be compensated by the province for the loss of the use of Boat Harbour for 10 years.
Nova Scotia citizens may also have to compensate the mill for any lost profits if it has to be idled because of a delay in getting a new effluent system up and running.
This puts the provincial government in a conflict of interest, and the impossible position of trying to regulate and assess the new effluent system, while it is responsible for its costs and any losses incurred by its delay.
More than 50 years of protest
Since the pipe plan was made public in late last year, thousands of citizens have mobilized against it. They have also launched a letter-writing campaign and an e-petition to convince Ottawa to undertake a federal environmental assessment.
On July 6, a land-and-sea rally to protest the pipe plan, organized by the Friends of Northumberland Strait, several fishers’ associations and unions, the Pictou Landing First Nation, the Pictou Lobster Carnival, tourism operators and environmental groups, drew thousands of people to the waterfront, many on foot and others in an impressive flotilla of fishing boats.
Protesters at the rally, including First Nation chiefs from three provinces, called for a federal environmental assessment.
The same day, then-minister of fisheries and oceans Dominic LeBlanc told reporters that the responsibility for the environmental assessment lay with the province of Nova Scotia. On Trudeau’s July 17 visit to northern Nova Scotia, McNeil defended the province’s environmental assessment process, and the prime minister echoed this sentiment.
It was a profound disappointment to those who, like Chief Andrea Paul of Pictou Landing First Nation, had been counting on the federal government to do a thorough assessment of the pipe proposal.
Not giving up hope on Ottawa
In an email, a spokesperson for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) stated that even if a proposed project is not included in the list of activities that trigger federal assessments, it can be designated for one if the federal environment minister determines it “may cause adverse environmental effects or public concerns related to those effects."
So far, neither the mill nor the province has been able to demonstrate that the proposed pipe will not cause “adverse environmental effects” to the precious fishing areas of the Strait, suggesting that grounds for federal intervention do exist. Additionally, the federal government has “broad responsibilities for the stewardship and management” of all of Canada's oceans — including the Gulf of St. Lawrence — and by extension, the Northumberland Strait.
When Northern Pulp’s general manager and technical manager, together with the consultant engineer in charge of the project, met with P.E.I’s Standing Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries earlier this year, they were unable to answer basic questions about the potential effect of the effluent on lobsters and the Strait.
Earlier this month, Northern Pulp admitted that its proposal to lay the pipe along the bottom of Pictou Harbour and out into the Strait, which it had planned to submit to the province in the summer, would not work — something fishers had been saying all along.
Pictou Harbour, the company determined, was too shallow, a collapsed pier and shipwreck were in the way, and an alternate route and outfall for the pipe would have to be found, pushing the registration of the proposal back to the fall of 2018.
None of this reassures people worried about the proposed pipe. For the past 51 years, the provincial government has consistently failed to protect citizens and the environment from the harmful effects the mill has had on air, water, forests and human health.
Nova Scotia’s auditor general has strongly criticized the province’s environmental assessment process, saying that environmental “approvals are issued without consulting inspectors who know risks,” and describing the monitoring of projects as “poor.”
Citizens concerned about the pipe point out that the provincial government is a party to designing the treatment facility, and can hardly be considered an “unbiased judge” of the proposal.
This is why, despite Trudeau’s refusal to commit to federal involvement, many continue to sign petitions, write letters, and pin their hopes on the federal government to step in and undertake an environmental assessment.