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Commentary: Pulp mill’s dark side gets short shrift

Last Saturday morning (Jan. 13), I picked up the The Chronicle Herald to see a front-page spread announcing the launch of a special report on the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou County, about which I had just written a book, “The Mill —Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.”

An editor’s note said that journalists from The Chronicle Herald and the SaltWire paper, New Glasgow’s The News, had spoken with people who run the mill. I looked forward to reading what they had to say since they had refused to be interviewed for my book. The editor also said that the journalists had spoken to some of those with concerns about the company’s plans for a new effluent treatment and disposal system.

The first of four articles said that the series would attempt to “lay out the facts in black and white to inform an important discussion about the mill’s role and future” in Nova Scotia.

To date, there have been four articles in the series. It has certainly provided lots of positive coverage of the mill. Missing, however, are the voices of the people with concerns about the mill, and many facts that still deserve attention.

For the last 50 years, one citizens’ group after another has formed to protest the effects of the mill’s pollution on air and water, and on other businesses and industries in Pictou. Others have protested the influence of the pulp industry on forestry in Nova Scotia, with its regime of clearcutting and herbicide spraying, and its access to Crown land.

Doctors and other citizens have requested — in vain — that the government undertake a study to determine whether high rates of cancer and respiratory problems in Pictou County relate to the mill and other heavy industries. There have also been repeated demands for better and more stringent monitoring of emissions, and meaningful fines when the mill fails tests.

Citizens have worried about the mill’s use of upwards of 90 million litres of fresh water each day, and the travesty of the Boat Harbour deal that allowed mill effluent to turn a pristine First Nation estuary into a stinking hellhole, one of the country’s most egregious pollution hot spots.

Over the years, one government after another lavished large amounts of public money in loans, grants and concessions on the mill, which has been owned by five large corporations (the current one is part of the Indonesian billionaire Widjaja family’s corporate behemoth with its headquarters in Asia).

Between 2009 and 2013, the province of Nova Scotia financed Northern Pulp to the tune of $111.7 million. In 2011, the federal government gave the mill $28.1 million for “green transformation.”

And yet, when the government tried in 2015 to impose just a few modest restrictions on Northern Pulp in a new industrial approval — to reduce the amount of water it could use and to cap production limits – the mill filed papers to take the government to court. In the end, the government caved and the restrictions in the industrial approval were removed.

In 2016, Northern Pulp pleaded guilty to charges of pollution caused by the rupture of its effluent pipeline the previous year, which spewed 47 million litres of toxic effluent onto sacred Mi’kmaq land. The mill was fined $225,000 and the judge said it had been “an accident waiting to happen” because the pipeline had been in an advanced state of deterioration. Not the kind of thing that builds trust when the company is trying to assure the community that it is safe to run a huge pipe full of effluent directly into lobster fishing and spawning grounds in the Northumberland Strait.

In recent months, the Northumberland Fishermen’s Association and the Friends of Northumberland Strait have made a strong case for a much more comprehensive environmental assessment of the effluent plans than the province has agreed to, and a treatment facility that would not put any effluent into the Strait.

The fishermen have linked up with fishermen’s groups in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick to oppose the proposed pipe. They have also plastered Pictou County with large signs saying “NO pulp waste in our water.”

Given all of the above, here’s hoping another series on Northern Pulp is in the works, one that will bring us the voices of people with a broad range of concerns about the pulp mill’s effects on water, air, forests, tourism, fisheries — and also politics in this province.

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