Friction in Pictou: Save paper mill jobs or protect waters from toxic waste

“It’s going to affect 10 major sawmills,” he says. “It’s the people who sell tires, sell gasoline, you know, sell building supplies to the mill … like, it’s widespread.”

Paper Excellence says it can’t eliminate toxic effluent from its manufacturing process at the mill, so the solution it proposes is to treat waste on-site and then pipe it directly out to the Northumberland Strait, some of the province’s most lucrative fishing grounds.

This has the local fishing industry up in arms.

“We have the biggest fleet in Northern Nova Scotia and you’re putting this [pipe] smack dab in the heart of it,” says lobster fisherman Ben Anderson. “You’re breaking the backbone of northern Nova Scotia’s lobster industry.”

Anderson’s skepticism around the proposed pipe comes from a mistrust of past government science.  

“They said the science was good for Boat Harbour,” he says. “What kind of science is that? It’s void of life.”

He is calling for a more stringent federal assessment of the proposal at the very least, something the federal government has yet to agree to.

An act of ‘environmental racism’

Neighbouring Pictou Landing First Nation are allies in the fight, leading to large protests both on land and water in recent months. The groups share a concern for marine life. And the First Nation wants reconciliation. 

In the 1960s, the province was so desperate to bring the mill to the county that it offered up Boat Harbour, no strings attached, and took on all responsibility for the future cleanup.

Watch: A First Nations fishing ground is affected by toxic leaks

At Pictou Landing First Nation, chief Andrea Paul uses a map to show CBC reporter Tom Murphy the location of Boat Harbour in relation to her community. 0:30

It also told the Pictou Landing First Nation chief of the time that there would be minimal impact on what was then a pristine fishing ground for the First Nation.

“You hear the stories of people going down to gather their fish, and the fish are all up at the surface and they’re gulping … and they can just go in and scoop them up. How painful that must’ve been,” says Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul.

“I definitely think it was environmental racism, and they had no regard for the people that lived around the area.”

Watch: Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul on the impact on her people

Pictou Landing First Nation chief Andrea Paul calls the decision to use Boat Harbour for mill effluent an act of ‘environmental racism.’ 0:19

Her community is holding the premier to his promise to restore the harbour, something the government has said it will do after the mill stops dumping effluent into it.

“I think about the closure of the mill, I think about the forestry, I think about our fishers. I think about the communities and the families. I think about the water and the what lives in the water. There’s a lot that goes through my mind,” Paul says.

“I think it needs to close and I’ve never said that out loud,” she adds. “They’ve been able to do what they’ve always wanted to do and … I think people have had enough of it.”

History of inaction

The premier is walking a fine line, not wanting reconciliation with the Mi’kmaq people and the environment to fuel a battle between local industries, or to lose jobs that are central to the regional economy. 

I believe these industries can co-exist. I believe our traditional sectors can co-exist,” he says. “I can’t stress this enough.”

But he adds that an extension to the deadline would cause more discontent.

Opposition among people in the region’s fishery to proposals for the future of Northern Pulp’s waste water has been simmering for several years. Fishing boats filled Pictou Harbour on July 6, 2017, to protest the proposed pipe, while hundreds more concerned residents marched on land. (CBC)

“When we provide a window of dealing with an issue, that’s the window,” he says. “Where we end up with problems is when we start shifting and moving. People start losing confidence in government, whether you’re actually going to deal with this issue or not.”

He’s fighting an uphill battle, because the province’s track record on Boat Harbour is a stack of broken promises.

As early as 1970, the dark water and foam drew attention, with two federal investigations concluding that Boat Harbour had turned into a septic retention pond.

A CBC documentary from 1970 shows brown water from Boat Harbour being analyzed in a lab. Though standards were updated in the 1990s, the harbour continues to be used as an effluent treatment site today. (CBC)

While some action was taken by the province, it was minimal until 1991 when the provincial environment minister announced that Boat Harbour would be returned to its natural state in five years.

In 1995, the promise to close Boat Harbour as a water treatment facility was pushed to 2005, then to 2008 — a promise that was ultimately broken as a result of a change of government.

The premier recognizes the shortcoming of governments of all stripes in dealing with the issue.

“I didn’t make the decision of creating Boat Harbour, but I’ve been given the privilege to deal with the issue of Boat Harbour,” he says. “We will clean it up, and I think the community will be better for it. I think the province will be better for it.”

Best-case scenario

With the clock ticking on Boat Harbour, Northern Pulp has registered a proposal with the provincial government for a new $130-million effluent treatment project. It includes an on-site treatment facility, and the contested pipe out to the Northumberland Strait.

The public comment period closes this weekend, and the next step is an assessment by the provincial Environment Minister.

If approved quickly, a new site could be under construction by late spring, and it would save the mill and all the jobs connected to it.

But even that best-case-scenario for Northern Pulp’s owners still wouldn’t meet the January 2020 deadline for ending the flow of effluent into Boat Harbour. An estimated timeline has the new treatment plant in operation in early 2021.

Northern Pulp’s future is uncertain as the mill’s owners wait for the province to review their proposal for a new effluent treatment plan. (Jill English/CBC)

It’s clear that extending the deadline won’t do for the premier or Pictou Landing First Nation.

“We need to start coming together and figuring out a plan forward, because they have said that without the extension the mill closes, and we’re not budging … on this date,” Paul says.

And a pipe approval in any capacity will anger those in the fishing industry, which fears for the Strait and the marine life they depend on for their livelihood.

“It’s our county and it’s our town, and we have a right to say what we want in our province as well,” says lobster fisherman Anderson.

As Pictou County deals with its problematic past, residents are realizing that building their future could involve some uncomfortable compromise.

More from CBCNews.ca

Watch The National’s story about Pictou’s mill problems:

This story originally appeared on CBC



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