Containing Northern Pulp’s mess: A half century of toxic waste in Boat Harbour, a leaky pipeline, and what happens next in the mill saga


This article first appeared in the Halifax Examiner on November 3, 2018.

The pulp mill effluent is aerated in this basin before flowing into Boat Harbour, where it settles for up to a month before being released into the Northumberland Strait. Photo: Joan Baxter

The numbers are staggering.

For the past 51 years, the bleached kraft pulp mill on Abercrombie Point in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, has piped about 1.25 trillion litres of toxic effluent into Boat Harbour.[1] That’s enough to fill about half a million Olympic-size swimming pools, or a pipeline one metre in diameter stretching about 1.6 million kilometres, the distance to the moon and back – twice.[2]

But in less than a year, the Northern Pulp mill has to turn off the flow. The 2015 Boat Harbour Act gives the mill until January 30, 2020 to use Boat Harbour for its effluent. The Pictou Landing First Nation has a “Winds of Change” clock on its website, counting down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until Boat Harbour pipe outlet is closed.

Proposals for an alternative treatment and disposal facility for the mill’s have met with vigorous and vociferous opposition from the Pictou Landing First Nation and fishermen in the three Maritime provinces, leading to rising tensions in the area.[3]

Despite the rapidly approaching deadline for closing the pipe into Boat Harbour, Premier Stephen McNeil has told CBC that he made a commitment to Pictou Landing First Nation, and unless the people there tell him otherwise, the closure date remains.

Dredging up 51 years of sludge

The pulp effluent spends about a week in a settling pond (shown here), before going into the aeration pond, and then Boat Harbour for further settling. Photo: Joan Baxter

Currently, the effluent travels from the mill on Abercrombie Point in a pipeline that runs under the East River and comes ashore at Indian Cross Point in Pictou Landing, and continues underground until it surfaces in a concrete channel that directs it into a settling pond.

From there, it goes to the aeration pond where large Mixmaster-like machines churn it up to add oxygen. Then the effluent flows — at what is known as Point C — into the Boat Harbour stabilization basin.

From the aeration basin, the effluent then flows into the Boat Harbour lagoon, at Point C. Photo: Joan Baxter

In Boat Harbour, the dark-coloured effluent has another month or so to “stabilize” and settle before flowing through a dam into a small inlet and the Northumberland Strait.

When this effluent system is shut down in 2020, Boat Harbour will be “remediated.” Toxic sludge will be dredged from its bottom, the dam separating the lagoon from the Northumberland Strait will be removed, and Boat Harbour will be restored as a tidal estuary as it was before the pulp effluent began to flow in 1967.

But the toxic sludge that will be dredged from the bottom of Boat Harbour is not going to be sent far away for treatment.

Plans for the sludge have been detailed in monthly information sessions held in the Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN) firehall. These sessions are organized by the Boat Harbour Remediation Team, comprising Nova Scotia Lands, GHD consultants, and the PLFN Remediation Department.

About 20 people turned up for the October 30, 2018 session to hear how the sludge will be stored underground in a “containment cell” — a kind of landfill — located on provincial land a little less than 100 metres from Boat Harbour.

Containing the contaminants

Ken Swain, who is managing the Boat Harbour Remediation Project for Nova Scotia crown corporation, Nova Scotia Lands, explained that the process, which will take between four and seven years, will involve dredging about a foot (30 cm) of the contaminated black sludge from the floor of the lagoon along with as little of the underlying uncontaminated brownish grey marine sediment as possible. This will be placed in “geo-tubes,” or fabric rolls, from which liquid will be removed and then taken away for treatment elsewhere. The remaining toxic sludge will go into a containment cell on the site.

The containment cell, according to Christine Skirth, an engineer from the consulting firm GHD handling the remediation, will involve a compacted layer of clay over bedrock, a polythene liner, a layer of gravel, a durable and sealed “geotextile mat,” and then a layer of soil.

The containment cell will be left to settle for a couple of years, she said, after which it might be suitable for use as a park, or golf course, or “light recreational activities.”

According to Swain, the site will have a long-term maintenance and monitoring plan, starting with a timeframe of 25 years.

More than 200 studies have been conducted over the years to find out what contaminants are in the sediment in Boat Harbour. It is not a pleasant mixture, containing cadmium, mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), petroleum hydrocarbons, zinc, and, notably, dioxins and furans.

According to Health Canada, health effects of dioxins and furans include: skin disorders; liver problems; impairment of the immune system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions; effects on the developing nervous system and other developmental events; and certain types of cancers.

The idea of the containment cell is to keep these contaminants sealed underground forever.

Swain said there is no other landfill in the province that can meet the requirements for storing sludge that contains dioxins and furans.

But, as he explained, it turns out the Boat Harbour site already has a 6.5-hectare containment cell, and has since 1996, when the province of Nova Scotia handed over responsibility for the operation of the pulp effluent treatment and disposal to the mill.

Over the years, Swain said, the aeration ponds have been dredged several times, and the sludge put into that containment cell.

“We expect that the existing material in the cell will remain,” Swain said. But there will also be some “refurbishment” of the cell, including materials to collect anything that leaches out of the sludge. He confirmed that they will have to move around the older sludge that has been placed into the cell since 1996.

It would not be feasible to develop a new containment cell, he said; just to get environmental approval for a new one would take six to eight years.

The remediation project is still in its pilot phase. A small corner of Boat Harbour (50 by 50 metres) has been dammed, drained, and dredged. About 18,000 cubic metres of the dewatered sludge are now ready for containment.

Swain estimates that once the 161-hectare Boat Harbour is dredged, there will be 560,000 cubic metres of dewatered sludge that will have to be buried in the same containment cell that the mill has been using for the past 22 years.

Citizens responsible for clean-up

Christine Skirth, the engineer consultant on the project, told the audience she has just completed a similar project at the site of an erstwhile pulp mill in Hawkesbury, Ontario. That project took five years and involved a containment cell much like the one to be used for Boat Harbour sludge.

That mill belonged to Canadian International Paper Co. (CIP), which was allowed to walk away in 1982, leaving behind a polluted mess on the Ottawa River.

The Ontario government was left with the costs of that site remediation.

Similarly, the government of Nova Scotia is responsible for the entire cost of the Boat Harbour project. A September 30, 1970 agreement stated the province would “cost, own, operate and maintain the Effluent Treatment System” and indemnify the mill owner for all liabilities related to the effluent. After that expired in 1995, the province signed an MOU handing the operation of the treatment system over to the mill, and another agreement that gave the mill the “broadest possible indemnity” for any possible claims relating to the effluent treatment system or its reconfigutation, in perpetuity.

According to Ken Swain, the current estimated cost of cleaning up Boat Harbour is $217 million. He said it could also be 30 per cent less than that, or 50 percent more, so the actual cost could be anywhere from $152 to $325 million.

Swain, who headed the Sydney tar ponds clean-up that cost just under $400 million, tells me the Boat Harbour project is similar in complexity, with “significant volumes of contaminated material in a marine environment.”

The Boat Harbour clean-up will have to undergo a Class II provincial environmental assessment, although Northern Pulp’s new treatment and effluent disposal facility needs only the far quicker and less comprehensive Class I assessment, a controversial decision Linda Pannozzo has written about for the Halifax Examiner, here and here.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) has also decided that the Boat Harbour project requires a federal environmental assessment.

Broken promises, broken pipelines 

Although the Pictou Landing First Nation and the settler community in the area have been protesting the toxic mess in Boat Harbour for decades, previous government promises to close it have come to naught.

It is not obvious that the current provincial government would have passed the Boat Harbour Act had it not been for the rupture of the mill’s effluent pipeline in 2014, when 47 million litres of toxic waste were spilled on sacred Mi’kmaw burial grounds at Indian Cross Point, and into the East River that flows into Pictou Harbour.

Infuriated by the spill, the people of Pictou Landing First Nation set up a peaceful blockade on the pipeline route and refused to dismantle it until they had a guarantee that the province would close the pipe into Boat Harbour.

Northern Pulp pled guilty to the offence under the Fisheries Act of releasing a deleterious substance into water frequented by fish, and the case went to court in 2016. In a victim impact statement, Pictou Landing Chief Andrea Paul described the effect that the mill’s effluent had had on her people since it began flowing in 1967: “The effluent has hovered like a ghost over the community for decades causing odours and health concerns.”

Before that, the estuary and its surroundings had provided the Pictou Landing First Nation with so much of their food and livelihoods that they called it “A’se’k” or “the other room.”

In 1965, two Nova Scotia government officials deceitfully convinced the Pictou Landing First Nation to sign away their rights to Boat Harbour so it would become the receptacle for effluent from the pulp mill and also, for about two decades, for toxic waste from Canso Chemicals. Mi’kmaq Elder and scholar Chief Dan Paul described the way the government officials did this as “almost criminal.”

Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul at the “No Pipe” rally in Pictou in July 2018. Photo courtesy Gerard James Halfyard

But while the mill’s toxic waste will soon stop flowing into Boat Harbour, that doesn’t mean the problem of the mill’s effluent has been solved, or that the First Nation or fishermen are prepared to accept plans by Northern Pulp to treat its effluent onsite and pipe it directly into the Northumberland Strait. The community group, Friends of the Northumberland Strait, has been compiling information on why it is arguing against the mill’s pipe plan.

On October 22, 2018, when the mill presented its latest proposal to the First Nation and to non-Indigenous fishers from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI, they rejected it outright. That proposal involves a pipeline from Abercrombie Point that would pump the treated effluent 14 km, following a route across the causeway, along the highway to the Caribou wharf, and then four kilometres out into the Northumberland Strait, close to the route the PEI ferry takes.

The fishers’ and First Nation mantra has been and remains “No Pipe.”

More pipeline problems

It didn’t help Northern Pulp’s cause or credibility that the day before its meeting with the First Nation and fishermen, there was yet another leak from the effluent pipeline at Indian Cross Point, which spilled an as-yet-unknown amount of effluent into ditches, woodlands, and wetlands at the edge of the East River.

A week after the latest pipeline leak, the dark and stinking effluent from the pulp mill was still in ditches near Indian Cross Point. Photo: Joan Baxter

According to William Palmer, the landowner under whose property the pipe runs, he and his wife were out for their daily walk on the morning of October 21, when they saw something moving on the side of the road ahead of them. At first they thought it was an animal, but then realized as they approached that it was effluent bubbling out of the ground from the pipeline that they say is buried six feet deep. Palmer says he immediately contacted the mill and their crews arrived within minutes.

Photo Joan Baxter

Vacuum pump trucks worked at the site all week, and when I visited the area six days later, the trucks were still coming and going, sucking brown, viscous and stinking liquid out of ditches. Dark liquid in a wetland just a few feet from the high water mark of East River was also being pumped out to the road where a truck sucked it out of the ditch.

Northern Pulp’s latest effluent spill was being cleaned up a week later, very close to the East River. Photo: Joan Baxter

A Nova Scotia Environment compliance officer who dropped by the site that afternoon referred all my questions to his department in Halifax.

More questions, fewer answers

The mill had been on annual shutdown for a day when the leak was discovered on October 21, so it is still not known how much of the fluid spilled was pulp effluent or other chemicals used in maintenance. I emailed Northern Pulp and Nova Scotia Environment that day and asked how much effluent leaked from the pipeline and what it may have contained; I’ve received no answers.

Northern Pulp mill on shutdown from Indian Cross Point in Pictou Landing, across the East River. Photo: Joan Baxter

Northern Pulp has maintained that the October 21 leak was “smaller” than the leak in 2014, which of course doesn’t mean it was small, given that the earlier leak involved 47 million litres of untreated effluent.

Kathy Cloutier, director of communications for Paper Excellence, which owns Northern Pulp, told the Chronicle Herald’s Aaron Beswick that it was “more of a partial leak,” if indeed any leak can be said to be “partial.”

But there are other aspects to the most recent pipeline leak that raise questions about the mill’s compliance with its Industrial Approval, issued in 2015 and then amended in 2016 by environment minister Margaret Miller, who made concessions to Northern Pulp on a range of restrictions, easing water use and annual production limits, for example.[4]

Section 7 of the mill’s Industrial Approval states that:

d) The Approval Holder shall monitor flow at Point A, the end of the effluent transmission pipe, on a continuous basis. This data shall be recorded daily and tabulated monthly

e)  The Approval Holder shall operate and maintain real time flow monitoring equipment at the end of the effluent transmission pipeline which is designed to immediately notify the Approval Holder in the event of a total loss of flow or a reduction of flow below normal operating conditions

f)  The Approval Holder shall immediately investigate any flow reduction or loss notification received from equipment outlined in Condition 7(e). These incidents, together with the reason for the loss or reduction of flow causing the alarm, shall be recorded and tracked monthly

g)  The Approval Holder shall immediately notify the Department of a loss or reduction of flow which results or may result in a release of untreated effluent to the environment.

Northern Pulp’s underground effluent pipeline surfaces at “Point A” in Pictou Landing, near Boat Harbour. Photo: Joan Baxter

If Northern Pulp continuously monitors this flow, then it would stand to reason that the minute a spill occurred at any point in the pipeline before Point A, where the pipe comes to the surface and channels the effluent into the settling ponds, Northern Pulp itself would know before anyone else.

Yet, as Palmer told me, he and his wife have discovered “all” of the leaks near Indian Cross Point — six of them — since they moved to the property there in 1985.

I asked Kathy Cloutier of Paper Excellence /Northern Pulp (on October 28) and Nova Scotia Environment (on October 26 and again on October 31) why a landowner has been the one to discover these leaks, including the most recent one, if Northern Pulp is respecting the terms of its Industrial Approval and monitoring “real time flow” at the end of the effluent transmission pipe “on a continuous basis.”

I am still waiting for an answer from Kathy Coutier.

Nova Scotia Department of Environment spokesperson Bruce Nunn replied, “It is standard practice for the department to avoid commenting on details of an incident while it is still under investigation and facts are still being gathered.”

So for details on how much effluent was spilled, what it contained, and whether any of it leaked into the East River from the wetlands, Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment has advised me to check back when the investigation is complete.

Nunn’s colleague at the Department of Environment, spokesperson Rachel Boomer, told me she didn’t know when that would be, but I should check back in a couple of weeks.

As has so often been the case with the Northern Pulp mill and the provincial government regulator over the past five decades, there are still far more questions than answers.


[1] Based on a calculation of 350 days a year for 51 years, with an average effluent rate of 70 million litres per day, a conservative figure given that the mill can use up to 92.3 million litres of water a day, according to amendments to the 2015 Industrial Approval that environment minister Margaret Miller communicated on February 8, 2016, to Northern Pulp. The amendments removed conditions in the Industrial Approval that would have reduced permitted volumes of effluent to 85 million litres by January 2017, 75 million by January 2018, and 67.5 million by January 30, 2020. But, as Miller wrote, those were no longer relevant because, “the water usage will control the volume of effluent being discharged to the effluent treatment centre” and the water usage limit had been increased.

[2] Based on a calculation of pipe volume for 1.25 trillion litres using a pipe volume calculator at:

[3] For a detailed analysis of the environmental concerns and controversy surrounding Boat Harbour and Northern Pulp’s proposal to treat the effluent on site and pump it into the Northumberland Strait, see Linda Pannozzo’s “Dirty Dealing” series in The Halifax Examiner: Part 1 and Part 2.

[4] The Northern Pup Industrial Approval available on a provincial website is an unsigned version, and it does not contain the amendments that were made in February 2018. In an email on October 31, I requested the final version of the Industrial Approval from the Department of Environment, and am still waiting for a reply.

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