Aaron Beswick (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published: Jan 18 at 12:59 p.m.
The conclusion of a four-day series by journalist Aaron Beswick looks at how Nova Scotia became so tied to Northern Pulp and what would happen if the pulp mill shuts down. Here are Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.
For most of his 35 seasons on the water, Sam Anderson has been watching Northern Pulp’s effluent pass over his lobster traps.
“Black as coffee,” said Anderson.
The treated effluent builds up in Boat Harbour until mill employees open a dam to allow it to flow into the Northumberland Strait.
His fishing grounds are outside that dam.
If the wind is northerly when they open the dam the effluent flows along the shore and over the grounds of other lobster fishermen.
“It’s this black, dead water with no oxygen in it. As soon as I see it I turn off the pump, I won’t dump that garbage on them,” said Ken Bugden, who fishes farther up the shore, of the boat’s system that pumps seawater onto captured lobster to keep them in a cool, oxygenated environment.
This series looks at the consequences if Northern Pulp shuts from various angles.
For the Northumberland Strait the answer appears simple on the surface — over 60 million litres of treated kraft pulp effluent a day shouldn't go into it.
But what effect the effluent of a treatment plant that hasn’t been built yet would have on both its immediate surroundings and the broader strait is a more difficult question.
Lobster live and are caught in the water just outside Boat Harbor during the spring fishery.
And the activated sludge treatment facility that would replace Boat Harbour is supposed to produce a less polluting effluent than the current aerated stabilization basin.
“The effluent quality obtained by use of (the proposed activated sludge treatment facility) is as good if not better than the majority of mills of similar vintage and process technology in Canada and the United States and meets the strictest effluent discharge parameters currently in place in these jurisdictions for existing mills,” reads an engineering report prepared by KSH Consulting for the mill and obtained by The Chronicle Herald through a freedom of information request.
Fishermen like Anderson say there will be catastrophic effects due to the settling of contaminants.
Scientists say any effects will depend on where you look.
“From the perspective of the entire Northumberland Strait, taking Northern Pulp out won’t have any measurable effect,” said Michael van den Heuvel, Canada research chair in watershed ecological integrity at the University of Prince Edward Island.
“It’s a drop in the bucket. Within a hundred metres or maybe even a square kilometre of the effluent outlet, yes, there could be some measurable effect.”
The important word here for scientists is “measurable.”
“I could go outside and throw a glass of water on the grass and it would have an effect,” said van den Heuvel.
“But can I measure it?”
The other important word is “effect.”
Everything that happens on land gets delivered to the water by trickling brooks and wide rivers.
Northumberland Strait ecosystem
Northern Pulp’s effect on the broader Northumberland Strait fits into a complex, and not fully understood, picture of humanity’s total impact on the waterway, which is bordered by the three Maritime provinces.
That effect is considerable and, as it turns out, there is plenty of blame to go around.
In response to concerns raised by fishermen that the Confederation Bridge (opened in 1997) was hurting lobster landings, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans sought a broad picture of the health of the Northumberland Strait and its many tributaries to set a baseline for future research.
The result was the 252-page Northumberland Strait Ecosystem Overview Report, delivered in 2007 after years of data collection by international science consultancy AMEC Earth and Environmental.
It found that the Northumberland Strait is not a healthy ecosystem.
“Many of the changes in the quality of the local environment have been gradual, and as a result, often have gone without much notice,” reads the report.
“Over time these barely perceptible changes, combined with larger scale influences (for example, climate change and sea level rise) have resulted in significant effects on the local environment and the resources upon which the people living along and near the Strait have depended for their livelihoods.”
The AMEC report spawned the Northumberland Strait Environmental Monitoring Network, of which van den Heuvel is a part, and which continues its work to this day.
The report and ongoing study have highlighted three main causes of the deterioration of the Northumberland Strait's ecosystem: nutrient loading, sedimentation and contamination.
Because an ecosystem is complex and the effects of the tens of thousands of compounds we pour into it are hard to figure out, scientists like van den Heuvel instead work backwards — taking an effect and trying to work back to its root causes.
“Everything points to the fact that contaminants are probably a smaller issue than nutrients and sediments,” said van den Heuvel.
Nutrients and sediment
Northern Pulp is a contributor of both contaminants and nutrients — that “black as coffee” treated effluent Anderson sees coming out of Boat Harbour has a broad mixture of compounds from the pulping process but is primarily parts of the million tonnes of softwood the mill consumes annually.
That is to say, it is primarily nutrients.
In basic terms, nutrients overfeed algae and other plants in estuaries causing a bloom that then decays and is consumed by micro-organisms that suck up all the oxygen in the water. Every year, some 20 estuaries in Prince Edward Island become anoxic — about eight of them along the Northumberland Strait.
Those oxygen-deprived estuaries are the nurseries for the many finned creatures of the strait.
Ninety-one per cent of the nitrates heading into the Northumberland Strait come from agriculture in Prince Edward Island (primarily potato production). The island accounts for another four per cent from other sources — leaving about five per cent of the nitrates flowing into the strait from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
As for an effect on lobster habitat, van den Heuvel said sedimentation — soil that flows out of estuaries — would be the biggest culprit.
That is caused primarily by the clearing of land along the shoreline for our homes and cottages.
Without trees and shrubbery to slow it down, large quantities of soil run out into the strait, covering rocky portions of the bottom. To us, it looks like a nice sandy expanse but for lobster larvae settling down, it looks a wasteland where they are exposed to predators.
“Each year the lobster associations here put out lobster collectors — which are basically bags full of rocks — and when they pull them up they are full of sediment,” said van den Heuvel.
“That’s a bad sign for that rocky substrate they need to complete their life cycle.”
On Christmas Eve, Stephen MacIntosh was walking on water.
Usually it’s not until early January that the ice of Merigomish Harbour is thick enough to support his weight.
But an early cold snap and customers looking for oysters had MacIntosh out hauling some of his 800 vexar bags, each holding 175 oysters, that sit on the harbour bottom.
“The quality of our oysters is largely so good because of the quality of the water,” said MacIntosh, owner of Pristine Bay Oysters.
Oysters are the cleaners of the ocean floor — those bits of dead plants that can decompose and suck the oxygen out of the water are gobbled up by the little bivalves.
Oyster farming is a growing business along the Northumberland Strait as most European and North American estuaries, which once were historically big cultivation areas, have been too heavily polluted by both industry and sewage.
While Boat Harbour empties directly into the Northumberland Strait, neighbouring Pictou Harbour continues to suffer more than any other area along the STRAIT?waterway from pollution.
“That’s a dead zone to me,” said MacIntosh.
Oystermen like MacIntosh are allowed to take their boats to places like Antigonish Harbour to tongue up the oysters that grow in water affected by agricultural run-off and what comes out of shoreline septic fields — as long as they then place the oysters in uncontaminated water for at least 21 days to filter out any potential bacterial contamination. Samples of those oysters are also then sent to an independent lab for testing.
The rest of us — just going to dig clams or pick oysters — are out of luck.
In 2006, there were 96 areas closed to shellfish harvesting due to agriculture and municipal wastewater contamination along the Northumberland Strait — and that number has been going up.
But bacterial contamination pales in comparison to the toxic soup of furans, organochlorines and heavy metals on the bottom of Pictou Harbour.
MacIntosh’s oysters can’t filter that out.
In 2002, a team of scientists collected 1,680 blue mussels from Malagash Bay and set them at 12 sites around Pictou Harbour, at two sites where Boat Harbour drains into the Northumberland Strait and one site in Merigomish Harbour.
They were assessing ways of testing for leukemia to help inform the discussion around the disease’s broad spread along the coastlines polluted by both municipal wastewater and industrial contaminants along eastern North America and around Europe.
The results, however, paint a picture of pollution.
None of the mussels set in Merigomish Harbour came down with leukemia.
All of the 12 sets in Pictou Harbour showed some mussels with leukemia — ranging from an infection rate of 56 per cent at one site near where the Town of Pictou then dumped its raw sewage (it now has a treatment plant) to a low of 10 per cent near the outfall of a sewage treatment plant for the other towns on the harbour.
Outside the harbour, 30 per cent of the mussels at a site 500 metres from Boat Harbour’s outfall had leukemia. At a site one kilometre from the same outfall, 23 per cent had leukemia.
“Precisely what the leukemogenic agents are at the various sites in Pictou Harbour remains to be determined,” reads the report published in 2005 titled Detecting p53 family proteins in haemocytic leukemia cells of Mytilus edulis from Pictou Harbour, Nova Scotia, Canada.
“. . . The proximity of the cage to the different point sources coupled with the different levels of haemocytic leukemia found in cages closely situated strongly suggests that industrial and (or) municipal waste was the most likely source for the haemocytic leukemia induction.”
The study found an effect of both municipal and industrial pollution, but what of the thousands of compounds in that waste was the cause remains undetermined.
“What comes out is clean,” said Anthony Sheehan, general manager of the East River Environmental Control Centre.
Clean is a vague word that goes over well with the general public.
It’s what everyone wants – clean harbours and a clean Northumberland Strait.
Ask what “clean” means and things get muddy.
What comes out of the treatment system for the towns of Stellarton, Trenton, New Glasgow and Westville is wastewater that meets or exceeds provincial and federal standards for ammonia, chlorine, toxicity, total suspended solids, biological oxygen demand and chemical oxygen demand.
Ten per cent of the mussels put outside Sheehan’s pipe, which serves 24,000 people, came down with leukemia, versus up to 56 per cent outside the raw sewage coming out of the Town of Pictou, then 5,000 residents, in 2002.
So “cleaner” might be a better descriptive word.
Pictou has since installed an activated sludge treatment system like the one managed by Sheehan.
That’s the same system proposed to be built by Northern Pulp.
There’s actually quite a lot of these wastewater systems along the Northumberland Strait.
Getting information on them, however, is difficult.
Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment told The Chronicle Herald to make a freedom of information request — a process that takes months. New Brunswick didn’t provide details by deadline.
But Prince Edward Island did — they have 19 wastewater treatment systems flowing into the Northumberland Strait. They range in size from Charlottetown’s, which produces 18.6 million litres of effluent a day (the same size as Sheehan’s), to just a few thousand litres.
Northern Pulp’s proposed system would have more than double the capacity of either Charlottetown’s or Sheehan’s.
“The 2017 data demonstrates all but two systems, Stratford and Souris, meeting or exceeding provincial standards,” said Wayne MacKinnon, spokesman for Prince Edward Island’s Department of Communities, Land and Environment.
“. . . We take the health of the Northumberland Strait very seriously, given its significant economic, environmental and social benefits to the province.”
But even our modern systems of measuring effluent don’t tell us in any detail what is coming out.
“It’s a pretty crude measure,” said van den Heuvel.
Biological and chemical oxygen demand are just the oxygen that will be consumed by bacterial consumption or decomposition of whatever it is coming out of a pipe. Total suspended solids is how much solid stuff, whatever it is, comes out. Chlorine and ammonia testing are specific but toxicity tests are just whether the effluent kills fish put in a effluent-filled bucket for 96 hours.
There are thousands of compounds — everything we ingest to everything we clean our bathrooms with — that make it through our waste water treatment systems.
What Northern Pulp consumes is different than the foods and medications you consume before you use the toilet.
So what would come out of its activated sludge treatment system is different than what comes out Sheehan’s.
“When you have a pulp mill you’ve got a complicated chemical mix,” said Delores Broten, editor of Watershed Sentinel, based in Comox, B.C.
“There are the compounds the mill uses in the process and the compounds in the trees. Each has their own resins and volatile organics that mix that together with polymers from the settling ponds.”
Broten has a long history with pulp mill effluent and speaks the lingo of chemical compounds, best practices, the known and the unknown.
Living on Cortes Island along the coast of mainland British Columbia, Broten’s interest in pulp effluent stemmed from concerns that pulp mill effluent was poisoning the island’s shellfish.
It was 1990 and mills along the Powell and Campbell rivers both drained over the shellfish beds surrounding Cortes Island.
The campaigning of the local shellfish association, along with Broten’s work on the group Reach for Unbleached, helped pressure both the provincial and federal governments in creating a more stringent regulatory framework for pulp mills.
The federal Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations set maximums on the aforementioned crude tests of biological and chemical oxygen demand, total suspended solids and toxicity (fish bucket test).
“It’s all made a difference,” said Broten.
But even with investment by mills and subsidies by the federal government to improve effluent quality, there remains at least one effect.
Studies show that kraft pulp effluent can have an effect on the endochrine systems of fish in the immediate area — their testicles grow larger.
“Scientists have gone down the rabbit hole trying to pinpoint the compounds that cause that,” said Broten.
But with thousands of compounds that vary depending on the mixture of trees running through any mill at any one time, they haven’t narrowed that one down.
“Outside of this impact on fish, nothing too much else has been noticed,” said Broten.
“We haven’t got all the dioxins out, but we have got the most harmful ones out. There has been a nitrogen problem but for the most part that is under control. The mills paying attention to their secondary treatment systems has made a difference.”
Legacy of pollution
Cortes Island’s shellfish industry, down stream from multiple pulp and paper mills, survives.
Pulp and paper is a fact of life in British Columbia – it’s a massive industry upon which many communities and families rely for income.
Despite significant improvements since 1990, it still has a large environmental footprint.
Testing has shown that the massive Fraser River is one per cent pulp mill effluent when it is running at low water levels during the summer, courtesy of the three mills emptying effluent into it. Fish, including salmon, still migrate up the river but it’s not as healthy as it once was.
There’s significantly more dilution in the Northumberland Strait than there is in the rivers where British Columbia’s four kraft pulp mills running activated sludge treatment facilities operate.
“If they’re going to be using activated sludge treatment with oxygen delignification, then they’re doing the right things,” said Broten of Northern Pulp’s planned treatment system improvements.
“And using waste wood from sawmills is also perfectly logical.”
But an effect remains.
And mistakes happen — whether due to failures of in mill process or big rain storms — that still result in untreated effluent running into receiving waterways.
And then there’s the human effect.
A legacy of pollution at Boat Harbour and contracts signed by successive provincial governments that put taxpayers on the hook for Northern Pulp’s environmental legacy has festered into a gap of trust wider and deeper than the Northumberland Strait between fishermen, many community members and the mill and provincial government.
In a Pictou County shop, on a Tuesday in December, Ken Bugden was building lobster traps for the coming spring season.
“Did you spread some over my bottom?” asked Anderson with a keen smile.
“I did,” said Bugden of the 30,000 stage four lobster larvae he released along their grounds in August.
It’s one of many initiatives, that include returning berried females and undersized lobster, by their association meant to improve catches.
Along the strait, fishermen largely stick to areas in an arrangement sanctified by tradition but not law. They both protect their areas from intrusion by other fishermen and make efforts to encourage the future of their lobster stocks — much like farmers look after their land.
It is an arrangement that inevitably engenders a sense of ownership.
“So what gives them the right to come in here and tell us what they’re gonna do to our bottom,” asked Anderson.
Northern Pulp’s new proposed route for its pipe would run out at Caribou, into the grounds of other fishermen and away from Anderson and Budgen.
But they’re both still opposed to it.
And Anderson doesn’t believe any of the mill’s presentations on how the new system will have less of an effect than the old.
Partly because he doesn’t think they or their consultants know how the water of the Northumberland Strait behaves and partly because he just doesn’t trust anything they say.
And that pollution of trust between the various users of the Northumberland Strait may prove to be the most difficult contaminant to remediate — if it is possible at all.