Op-Ed: Mill a tragic legacy for our children and grandchildren


The tragic legacy of Northern Pulp has resulted from the extremely poor decision making by governments, past and present. Successive owners of the mill, including the current owners, have not invested heavily in capital expenditures to modernize the plant to be consistent with current technology.

Much has been written over the last few years about Northern Pulp and its air emissions and more recently about Boat Harbour that handles the water side effluent.

When the mill was built in the late 1960s, the government of the day agreed to be responsible for the treatment of the liquid waste from the mill — this commitment is still in place for the current owner/operator, Northern Pulp, until 2030. I am not aware of another mill in North America where taxpayers cover the costs, present and future, for effluent treatment. This is, in fact, a hidden taxpayer subsidy being paid to the mill.

The government in the ’60s decided to use Boat Harbour, located adjacent to the First Nations Community of Pictou Landing, as the cornerstone of waste water treatment from the Mill and such use continues today.

The current government has committed to the Pictou Landing First Nations Community to stop the use of the Boat Harbour treatment facility by 2020 and then to remediate the site.

For the 10 years between 2020 and 2030, the government (read tax payers) remain responsible for the treatment of the water effluent from the mill while the mill continues in operation.

The current discussions about the Boat Harbour replacement treating facilities include a different treatment process and a pipeline to discharge the treated effluent into the mouth of Pictou Harbour where the discharge, including the settleable form of the effluent, has the high potential to negatively affect a key Fishery. There are some indications the mill will invest in a process called oxygen delignification that may improve the quality of about 15% of the waste effluent stream. The effluent from the pipeline that is proposed to be discharged into Northumberland Strait will still contain settleable solids. Such solids are currently discharged into the Boat Harbour Basin which as is well known devoid of any living organisms.

The 300-acre lake known as Boat Harbour Basin is in fact the current immediate receiving waters and not the Northumberland Strait. To put it simply, the Boat Harbour Replacement Project is to replace the 300-acre Boat Harbour Basin with the Northumberland Strait.

There is wide spread opposition to the pipeline effluent discharging into a fishery habitat. Protest signs abound in the area regarding “No Pulp Waste in our Water” and a protest rally is planned for early July at the Pictou Lobster Carnival.

Northern Pulp has sent out flyers stating “No Pipe, No Mill.” No Mill translates to loss of jobs at the mill and in the woodlands as well as other spin off jobs in support of the mill and woodland operations.

The potential for conflict is real considering what is at stake on the mill and fishery sides of the issue.

Back to the tragic legacy of misguided government decision making, here is my summary of what the mill has and will cost, the tax payers for decades to come:

1. Loss of use of Boat Harbour and surrounding area by Pictou Landing First Nations for several decades (1960s to completion of remediation).

2. Remediation of Boat Harbour post 2020 shutdown is projected to be more difficult, read more costly, than the Sydney Tar Ponds with guesstimates exceeding $500 million.

3. If the government, by not providing an acceptable waste water treatment facility, forces the mill to close/cease operations, the government in all likelihood is liable for Northern Pulp’s loss of profits from 2020 to 2030 or, again, several hundreds of millions of dollars.

4. If the government can propose an acceptable facility to replace Boat Harbour, the tax payer bears the construction and operating costs of a new facility that, again, will be above the hundred million mark. (The government (tax payers) is responsible for treating the water effluent from the mill post 2020 when Boat Harbour is shut down — a treatment process acceptable to the Fishery has yet to be proposed and accepted.)

5. The air emission and water effluent impacts on the environment and health in the region are real but not quantified with public credibility. Recent studies on these impacts by Dalhousie University have been quietly muted by non-disclosure agreements by government.

The technology used in the mill is outdated such that a near closed loop process for waste water treatment is all but impossible from an economic standpoint. Modern mills using current technology and producing the same paper product have a fraction of liquid discharge compared to Northern Pulp.

The cost to upgrade the mill to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of the effluent going to a waste water treatment facility is probably in excess of the mill’s net worth so very unlikely Northern Pulp would invest in such an upgrade.

Without an upgrade and with the current quantity and quality of waste water from the proposed alternative facility that replaces Boat Harbour, social outrage may halt installation of the pipeline and that in turn shuts down the Mill. If the mill closes there is the question of liability for demolition and site remediation and, in the end, there is a high probability the costs will be a taxpayer responsibility for many more hundreds of millions of dollars. The government could decide to finance the upgrade of the mill in order to get improved quality, and a reduced quantity, of waste water so that an acceptable to the fishery treatment facility can be installed. The cost of financing internal improvements in the mill would need to be weighted against the loss of profits liability if the mill is forced to close due to a lack of waste water treatment capability. In either scenario, governments have created several hundred million dollars of liability.

It is apparent to me that very poor decision making by governments, past and present, have created millions of dollars in liability as well as environmental, social and health impacts, for current and future tax payers, our children and our grandchildren; a tragic legacy.

There is no apparent clear path forward: The current government has a vested interest for a minimum investment option for facilities that replace Boat Harbour and that option conflicts with an environmentally acceptable solution for the fishery. A mill closure triggers a legal liability contest for loss of profits, the potential cost for tax payers for site demolition/remediation and the loss of jobs.

Boat Harbour remediation will take years and cost hundreds of millions.

Tax payers to date have spent millions on the Mill .

At what total cost to the taxpayers and future generations of Nova Scotians are the health, environmental and economic-socio impacts created by the mill ?

Rod Desborough