As the 1990s dawned, Nova Scotia was under increasing pressure to fix Boat Harbour for good.
The province had hired two consulting firms, Jacques Whitford and Beak Consultants, to study options for what do with the mill waste. In August 1993, only a month after the federal government’s $35 million settlement with the Pictou Landing First Nation band was inked, the consultants reported back with five options, from simply opening up Boat Harbour to the strait for $30,000, to construction of an entirely new treatment facility at a cost of up to $82 million.
The province took the middle ground, choosing to pipe treated waste from the first lagoon two kilometres into Northumberland Strait, where it would be mixed into the seawater.
Bob Christie, who later became the executive director of the Pictou Harbour Environmental Protection Project, a group that persuaded the province to make improvements to the mill operation, said the pipeline idea was sound – in theory.
“The effluent quality would have been the same, but it would have been diffused into the environment so the environment would be able to better deal with it, capacity wise,” he said. “The problem was that off McKenzie Head, where they were going to put the diffuser, there were a lot of engineering problems — the depth of the water was pretty shallow.”
Local fishermen, shocked at the idea of pulp mill waste pumping into their fishing grounds, lobbied the government to nix the pipeline plan. A few years earlier, in October 1990, tens of thousands of fish had washed ashore near Boat Harbour, stumping government officials and causing citizens to call for more stringent pollution control at the mill.
The Gulf Nova Scotia Bonafide Fishermen’s Association held public meetings and collected a petition with 1,900 signatures against the pipeline and took their cause to Ottawa. “We said ‘this is not going to happen. You’re not going to put this stuff out in our marine environment,’” said Dave Crawford, the association president. “And that’s basically the last thing we heard about it.”
The plan died.
The province looked for a plan B, but not before it had to deal with another nagging issue. Although waste started to pour into Boat Harbour in 1967, it was 1970 before the province and Scott Paper worked out the detailed terms of the agreement to treat the waste and provide water for the mill. That deal was set to expire December 31, 1995, and some local residents saw that date as an opportunity to close Boat Harbour. The paper company, however, wanted to renew the agreement and invoked a clause that allowed it to do so.
Gerald O’Malley was the Liberal minister of Supply and Services in Premier John Savage’s government in 1995 and 1996. He said talks over the renewal eventually involved Ottawa, the mill, provincial officials, local residents and the First Nations band.
“The Indian population were very, very concerned that we restore both the land and the water to what they conceived as the original condition that would allow fishing and hunting and other daily living exercises,” O’Malley said. “And the residents along the shore were concerned that our plan would do the job that would rid them of pollution that was affecting their real estate interests. And Scott Paper of course were very concerned, they had been trying to do what they could to keep that thing somewhat free of pollution even though they were polluters. And we (the province) wanted to ensure that as an industry they would remain viable.”
O’Malley said the government had to take responsibility for the pollution, but also had to be friendly to the pulp and paper industry. The terms of the agreement reflect that stance: the province would accept all responsibility for the cleanup and provide the mill with environmental improvement credits to upgrade the plant in keeping with environmental laws.
As part of the deal, the province paid to upgrade the aerators and the paper company took over responsibility for operating the treatment plant. But the agreement left the province responsible for everything that had happened in the past, including any legal claims that might be filed because of the use of Boat Harbour and the pollution within. Nova Scotia also agreed to lower the water level in Boat Harbour so it wouldn’t touch reserve lands anymore.
“The province recognized that we had been successful in negotiating with Canada,” said Dan MacDonald, a long-time employee of the band. “They were fearful that the feds might come back to recoup some of the $35 million from them. It removed that liability.”
The agreement also killed the pipeline diffuser idea for good, and a provincial press release said the paper company agreed to stop dumping waste in Boat Harbour by 2005.
The province had 10 years to find a solution. But a decade wasn’t long enough. The pipeline plan turned into yet another broken promise.
As the 1990s waned and the new century dawned, regular monitoring of the sediments continued and the province pushed ahead on plan B: what would become known as the “tidal flushing” option. The idea of restoring Boat Harbour to its original state had been around for years, but now it became the centre of provincial efforts.
The Boat Harbour plant is actually made up of two settling ponds that then feed the waste into a small lagoon where oxygen is added by aerators, as well as nitrogen fertilizer, to help break down organic waste. From there the partially treated waste flows into the main lagoon, where sediments settle to the bottom before the wastewater is released into Northumberland Strait.
In the tidal flushing plan, waste treated in the aerated lagoon would be piped directly to the strait, and the large lagoon opened up to the strait again, allowing the normal ebb and flow of the tides to gradually return the basin to its natural state.
But before the plan could be completed, there would be another round of negotiations, leading to a 25-year renewal of the initial 10-year term of the Boat Harbour treatment facility. The band was also brought on board, entering into an agreement with the paper company that saw the band receive promises of payments and land in exchange for consent to the mill’s continued use of Boat Harbour.
The province was so confident in the tidal flushing plan, it hired Jacques Whitford to prepare the studies and other documents required for a federal environmental assessment. The province filed a plan in the Pictou County land titles office and prepared a website extolling the plan. That website is still up, the only official information available aside from the environmental assessment documents. A member of the public viewing the site would think this was still the plan.
But trouble lurked. Even though Jacques Whitford gave the plan a clean bill of health in a 2004 assessment document, the firm raised concerns, when the initial assessment was undergoing review a year later, about a phenomenon called eutrophication.
A body of water eutrophies when it is so packed with plant nutrients that growth of algae and other sea plants spirals out of control, using up all of the oxygen. The plants die and decay, and the body of water dies with them. It`s what happened to Lake Erie in the 1960s, before a ban on phosphates in laundry detergents brought that Great Lake back from the dead.
At Boat Harbour the concern was that the mill waste, released on the receding tide, would be washed back into Boat Harbour when the tide came back in. Nitrogen fertilizer is added to the mill waste in the aerated lagoon to feed natural breakdown processes, and it was feared enough of that fertilizer would be left to spark eutrophication when the tide washed nutrients back in.
The province searched for solutions and hired another consulting firm, but the problem couldn’t be studied away, and the Pictou Landing band wanted nothing to do with a plan that could just make things worse. “We said ‘you can’t open it if there is going to be eutrophication,’” said MacDonald.