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Turning the toxic tide on Northern Pulp and Boat Harbour

With a legacy of broken promises and a company taking the government to court, what does the deadline for the Boat Harbour Act mean to people who see Boat Harbour as a loss they can never get back?

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As of January 31, the Northern Pulp mill will be legally prohibited from piping chemical waste into Boat Harbour. But with a legacy of broken promises as dirty as the sludge choking the estuary, and a company taking the government to court to keep its mill running, what does this deadline mean to people who see Boat Harbour as a loss they can never get back? - ZANE WOODFORD
  • ZANE WOODFORD
  • As of January 31, the Northern Pulp mill will be legally prohibited from piping chemical waste into Boat Harbour. But with a legacy of broken promises as dirty as the sludge choking the estuary, and a company taking the government to court to keep its mill running, what does this deadline mean to people who see Boat Harbour as a loss they can never get back?

M ary Hatfield and her husband Alan built their house on an empty lot on Eagle Road in the late 1990s. More than 20 years later, the 67-year-old sits on the couch in her front room, explaining the landscape around her modest bungalow. Hatfield spent 26 of her adult years living in Truro before moving back to Pictou Landing First Nation and building this house, but she always maintained her connection to the community—she knows this piece of reserve land well.

Hatfield points to some of her neighbours' houses and names the occupants—one of them, another elder, is also named Mary. She gestures toward the coast, where cottages owned by "non-natives" used to be, before Boat Harbour became what it is today.

 The Hatfields were the first to build on Eagle Road—before it had a name, before the road was paved or the land surveyed—but other community members followed, filling the space around them. Now the Hatfields are surrounded by other Mi'kmaw households, and the road is a landmark.

When she was a child, Hatfield and her siblings and cousins would go to the channel linking Boat Harbour to the water of the Atlantic Ocean. Back then, Boat Harbour was a tidal estuary—enveloped, but for that narrow channel, by reserve lands. The children would watch the current as it stirred salt and freshwater together into a brackish blend, a hallmark of estuaries that supports a richness of life.

"We'd go down there and swim and watch speedboats go under the bridge, going back and forth, back and forth," she says.

"And there was a lot of fishing; people would fish and swim and everything down there."

That same channel is now dammed, the estuarine ecosystem decidedly changed by decades of pollution. Hatfield lives less than a kilometre away from the bridge of her childhood (now a causeway), but she doesn't swim there anymore.

Hatfield gladly shares her memories of Boat Harbour—memories of its beauty, and its centrality to the community's well-being—and has done so for as long as her grandson, Carter Hatfield, can remember.

But just as often, the 19-year-old says, she shares words of warning.

"My nan was always just: 'Stay away from the water, you'll get sick,'" says Carter.

Hatfield takes the pollution at Boat Harbour seriously. She's a survivor of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School and she describes both experiences the same way: Oppressive.

Hatfield was forbidden from speaking her mother tongue, Mi'kmaq, at residential school, but she took a piece of advice from her grandmother to heart: speak it in your mind even if you can't speak it from your lips. 

She would go home to Pictou Landing in the summer and on some holidays, and recalls waiting up past dark for her father to come home from eel fishing. He used to fill the family's plates with food from the reserve's water and land, but that all changed soon after a kraft paper mill started pouring its wastewater into Boat Harbour.

"It certainly stopped a lot of men in their tracks from providing food for their families," Hatfield says.

She never learned to hunt and fish the way her father did, so she can't teach her grandson, and she laments the loss of culture. She says she can only think of two men left in the community of about 500 who still hunt "the proper way."

But Hatfield has hope for the youth in her community, and that hope swelled for a moment on December 20, 2019, when premier Stephen McNeil said he would uphold a promise to turn off the pipe carrying industrial waste into Boat Harbour, and clean up the mess that had accumulated there.

She was watching from her house on Eagle Road and had her eyes glued to McNeil's somber face as he built up to five important words: "There will be no extension."

"We were jubilant," says Hatfield.

"I could hear people were—well, people came out, and they started coming out of their houses and honking their horns, going up and down," she says, gesturing to her street through the front window.

"It was a celebration, you know? And I was going to even jump in my car that day, but then said, 'Ah, let them have their fun, let the young people have their fun. It's their time.'"

Mary Hatfield - ZANE WOODFORD
  • ZANE WOODFORD
  • Mary Hatfield

H atfield was a child when, in 1966, the band council relinquished Boat Harbour to the provincial government. Scott Paper wanted to set up a kraft mill in Nova Scotia that would turn wood into wood pulp, and wood pulp into toilet paper, paper towel and paper to write or print on. Abercrombie Point, Pictou County looked like the right location; a nearby 140-hectare lagoon looked like the right place to empty the mill's industrial wastewater.

The federal government helped broker a deal that saw the province buy about 540 hectares of land and water from the First Nation. The amount paid to Pictou Landing in 1966 was $60,000, which would be equivalent to about $460,000 today.

Soon after the pollution started flowing in 1967, the First Nation's chief and band council regretted the decision, which they said was made based on false assurances that the water would be clean and drinkable.

Twenty years later, in 1986, the band council launched a lawsuit against the federal government for failing to uphold its fiduciary duty to the First Nation on the land deal. They settled outside court in 1993 for $35 million, but nothing changed at Boat Harbour. For 26 more years, the mill would pipe tens of millions of litres of industrial wastewater into the dammed lagoon, daily.

Over those years, successive governments have promised to end the pollution, but none wanted to see the mill close, and sometimes helped the business with multi-million dollar loans. Just a month before McNeil's decision, Chronicle Herald reporter Aaron Bewsick uncovered and published the sum of all the mill's outstanding debts to the province: more than $85 million.

The latest promise, however, is the closest to actual change this province has seen on Boat Harbour. Signed into law in 2015, the Boat Harbour Act says the mill has to stop pouring wastewater, or effluent, into Boat Harbour by January 31, 2020.

For the owners of the mill, a corporation called Paper Excellence, the Boat Harbour Act meant the mill would need a new system for treating its effluent—the unavoidable byproduct of kraft mill operations that contains, among other things, barium, boron, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc.

Paper Excellence designed a system that would treat effluent on location at Northern Pulp (the name of the mill since 2008) and carry it 15 kilometres through a pipeline, eventually emptying into the Northumberland Strait. They've estimated it would take about 18 months to build.

But they haven't started building it.

Twice the company has asked for approval from Nova Scotia's department of environment, and two successive environment ministers have turned the company away without a "yes" or a "no." The latest ruling came six weeks before Boat Harbour was set to close, and environment minister Gordon Wilson said the project's environmental impacts needed more study.

On the same day as Wilson's ruling, December 17, Paper Excellence executives made a plea for McNeil to extend the Boat Harbour deadline. It wasn't the first time the company had asked, because its executives knew, before submitting their proposal to the province, there was no way a new facility could have been built in time to seamlessly replace Boat Harbour. The premier hadn't publicly responded to earlier requests, but he had been unequivocal on one point: no extension without Pictou Landing's approval.

 

Carter Hatfield - ZANE WOODFORD
  • ZANE WOODFORD
  • Carter Hatfield

On January 31, 2019, Pictou Landing First Nation threw a party to kick of the one-year countdown to Boat Harbour's closure. An open invitation was circulated on social media a few days before with the important details: 10am, at the school gymnasium. The occasion was to mark the beginning of an end.

Four drummers struck their mallets on a shared instrument and sang along to a steady beat—the kind that shakes your ribcage when you stand nearby. Circling them were about a dozen children, dancing, less practiced than their musical counterparts but similarly focused.

Many people in the room wore red t-shirts printed with the Mi'kmaq name for the lagoon, A'se'k, which has become a mantra for the fight to close Boat Harbour. 

Reporters, photographers and camera crews had driven more than 170 kilometres from Halifax to the First Nation community to document the celebration, and get Chief Andrea Paul on the record—would she agree to an extension to the Boat Harbour Act?

Paul, then in her fourth elected term as leader of Pictou Landing band council, is part of a long line of chiefs to have negotiated with politicians and corporate executives about Boat Harbour.

At 9am in Halifax, Paper Excellence also hosted an event—a press conference. Kathy Cloutier, then-spokesperson for the corporation, took to a lectern in a hotel conference room and read from a script.

For 10 minutes, Cloutier slowly, carefully built up to what all the facts and evidence were pointing to: the owners of the mill needed and wanted an extension to the Boat Harbour Act—at least a year, maybe more.

At Pictou Landing's celebration, Paul responded without hesitation. Would she agree to an extension? "No. Definitely not." Her response to that question hasn't changed since.

Paper Excellence did not respond to an interview request for this story. Paul responded only to say she was taking a hiatus from interviews. Aside from written statements, the last time Paul spoke to media was January 2, 2020, telling the New Glasgow News she'd been receiving threats and was worried about her safety.

As the crow flies, Northern Pulp is a couple of kilometers south of the Town of Pictou. From downtown, facing the water of Pictou Harbour, there's a perfect view of the mill's industrial turrets and buttresses—so long as there isn't a wall of fog in the way.  

The mill is a conspicuous neighbour, not only because it hangs like a picture on the town's southern horizon, but also because the exhaust from its smoke stacks has a sulphurous smell that can spread across the whole county, depending on the force and direction of the wind.

Jim Ryan has lived in town for 37 years, and for the past three, he's been mayor. He's heard fellow residents complain of the smell, and business owners complain about it driving money away, but the town has always had to weigh the bad against the good.

"From a historical perspective, I think people always felt that the mill was providing good jobs, good employment for people."

"We rarely looked into what was happening on the other side of the harbour," says Ryan, referring to Pictou Landing First Nation.

By the 2016 census, the average income in Pictou County was about $36,500. According to figures Northern Pulp provided for a union-funded study about the mill, the average salary of a mill worker in 2018 was $84,600—more than twice the county average. At that time, there were 352 people employed full-time at the mill, and about 1,200 who depended on the mill through supply contracts and the like.

The balancing of pros and cons took on a different weight for the Town of Pictou when the mill proposed its new effluent treatment system. The pipeline route was to pass over the town's watershed and into fishing grounds that supported livelihoods for many residents. Ryan says the risks were "unacceptable."  

"It's difficult," he says about choosing a position on the deeply polarizing issue.

"We have people in our community that are on, unfortunately...both sides."

The division is felt throughout Pictou County, where 49-year-old Kimberley MaLaughlin has lived all her life. She's worked in the mill's stores department for the past 13 years.

Speaking over the phone about a month after receiving a lay-off notice, the racket of a paper mill winding down its operations occasionally drowns out her voice.

MacLaughlin is grappling with a flurry of problems that the mill's closure brings to her family: she'll be out of a job starting in February, her husband's work in the forestry industry is now precarious and her son's millwright apprenticeship seems suddenly impractical, to name a few. When she heard McNeil's decision, she was devastated.

"I agree Boat Harbour needs to be cleaned up...but it's been hard on my family."

MacLaughlin says she wishes there could have been a more open dialogue between the different sides of the Northern Pulp debate, but she admits she sometimes avoids the topic in conversations outside of her immediate family.

MacLaughlin blames the province for the trouble in Pictou County. Echoing Paper Excellence's messaging, MacLaughlin says the timeline in the Boat Harbour Act was "unachievable" from the beginning.

 

The Northern Pulp mill pipes 85 million litres of industrial wastewater into Boat Harbour daily. - ZANE WOODFORD
  • ZANE WOODFORD
  • The Northern Pulp mill pipes 85 million litres of industrial wastewater into Boat Harbour daily.

When Mary Hatfield and her husband built their house on Eagle Road, it was out of necessity—there weren't any vacant homes in the community. Jobs can be similarly hard to come by, and Hatfield says she can empathize with anyone facing unemployment.

"You never want to see anybody out of work...It takes both of us to work even just here—you know, Alan and I. And we're retired and we still have to keep going to keep the household going."

"But on the same token, did they think about us 52 years ago when they started polluting? Did they think about how we were gonna survive and how Boat Harbour was going to affect us, spewing mercury and all this poison? We've had people die here from cancer...it's still hard to deal with."

The clean-up of Boat Harbour is estimated to cost about $250 million and take four to seven years before rights to the land and water are returned to Pictou Landing First Nation.

As it plans the clean-up, the province has been consulting with members of the First Nation, including Hatfield's grandson Carter. When asked to imagine what the community might do after the reclamation, Carter says he thinks about the extra space.

"It'd be nice to make our reservation bigger—more stores, more houses," he says.

In the days before January 31, the Hatfields didn't know exactly what they'd do to commemorate the date, in part because no one in the community was sure what they would be commemorating. Despite the sense of victory they felt when McNeil said he would uphold the Boat Harbour Act, Hatfield says January 31 "is not much of a closure, now."

The premier says no new effluent will enter Boat Harbour after the deadline, but the byproducts from putting the mill into hibernation will. The province doesn't expect to seal the pipe into Boat Harbour until April.

Rather than abandon ship, Paper Excellence has decided to pause operations and try for approval for the new effluent treatment system, again. It's also decided to go to Nova Scotia Supreme Court for a review of minister Wilson's decision.

In any event, the clean-up of Boat Harbour, in some ways, has already begun. The province's plans are under review by the federal government and if they're approved, work could begin in 2021.

The water could be swimmable again by the end of the decade, although Hatfield has her doubts. She predicts she'll be too old to splash around by the time the waters are fully restored.

"Maybe, I might be able to dip my toe in," she says, laughing.

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