This story is over 5 years old.

The Strange Case of Pictou County, Nova Scotia—A Community Supported by Toxic Mills

Air pollution and stench from the paper mills flouts federal regulations, compromises locals' health, and kills the potential of tourism.
Photo by Miles Howe

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

For a brief moment in June, a First Nations-led blockade of a burst effluent pipe in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, occupied a blip on the national news cycle. An effluent spill, likely in the tens of millions of liters, had covered a portion of a traditional Mi'kmaw burial ground, and had also flowed into the adjacent Pictou Harbour. I reported on it for VICE at the time.


Amongst the list of demands of the blockaders was that the province of Nova Scotia shut down and remediate the Boat Harbour Effluent Treatment Facility.

The blockade itself ended with a handshake between Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul and Nova Scotia Minister of the Environment Randy Delorey, along with a promise from the province to set timelines, beginning in 2015, to shut down Boat Harbour.

The immediacy and catastrophic nature of the spill itself, as well as the subsequent reaction from the Pictou Landing band, made the story ‘hot.’ The story of Boat Harbour, which rarely escapes tiny Pictou County, let alone Nova Scotia, is more of a 47-year ‘slow burn.’

To know the Boat Harbour Effluent Treatment Facility is to know the Abercrombie Point Pulp and Paper Mill, and vice versa. On all levels, from structural to economic, one could not exist without the other. And to know the mill and Boat Harbour is to know the town of Pictou and the community of Pictou Landing. Indeed, at times it is to catch a scent of much of Pictou County. Like any number of communities across this country that live and die with their mills, their stories are interwoven.

The Abercrombie Mill, now owned by global pulping pariahs Asia Pulp and Paper under a shell company known as “Paper Excellence,” is the last of Nova Scotia's so-called Big Three mills. Under the previous NDP Dexter government, we saw the Bowater Mersey mill breathe its last breath. The Port Hawkesbury mill now operates at a fraction of its heyday.


Not so at Abercrombie Point, where mill owners, who come and go, operate with a steady diet of government grants and loans.

Indeed, despite claims that the mill indirectly employs upwards of 1,000 souls—which is no small shakes in Pictou, population about 3,500—an action group called Clean Up the Mill estimates that if one were to subtract government funding from the mill's local economic output, Abercrombie would be a neutral factor, at best.

On the shadow side of the negative equation is all the lost money and blown opportunities that come with a mill that not only makes the county reek, but also blankets the skies with a mix of chemicals that—if federal guidelines of such were enforceable—would be downright criminal.

In 2012, the last year available statistically, the mill self-reported that it was sometimes thousands of percentage points over the federal thresholds for Substance Emissions and Critical Air contaminants.

Chemical Leak in Canada Sparks a First Nations Blockade. Read more here.

Tourism and its spin-offs have rightly turned their nose at Pictou. And while one might ridicule the meager take of a local B&B, or a fish and chip shack by the sea, communities to the south have done a tidy profit in trawling the waters of the tourist trade. Nova Scotia, remember, is blessed with the ocean and is steeped in colonial history. Tourists come eager for a lobster feed, a Maritime pace, a unique landscape and perhaps a little colonial re-creation—if a tad white-washed.


Pictou, the settling spot of the good ship Hector and its crew of Scottish migrants, is blessed with both history and the warm waters of the Northumberland Straight. But if Pictou is mentioned in tourism guidebooks Lonely Planet or Forbes, it is not in pleasant terms. Tourists are indeed warned to stay away, despite the fact that a re-creation Hector still lies moored in Pictou Harbour, if one can find it amidst the mill-manufactured smog.

The health of Pictou County itself is also in serious doubt. Nova Scotia, cursed with winds that settle foully from the industrial Eastern Seaboard of the USA, stands out amongst the provinces with its elevated rates of cancer.

But Pictou County, amongst Nova Scotia counties, is very sick.

As documented by the Pictou County Health Authority, cancer incidences, including breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, and cancer-related deaths in general are all higher in Pictou County than the rest of Nova Scotia.

Pictou County also ranks far higher in acute coronary syndrome and coronary failure than the rest of Nova Scotia.

Jackson Beadle of Pictou Landing First Nation stands by the shores of Boat Harbour, snapping a photo of the effluent treatment facility that stands meters from his home. In the background are a series of aerators installed in an attempt to force oxygen into the water. The once-idyllic tidal estuary has been overwhelmed by oxygen-depleting wood particulate and effluent. According to Abercrombie Mill representatives, Boat Harbour receives approximately 70 million liters of effluent per day from the mill. Photo via Jonathan Beadle.

Disturbingly, Pictou County displays a higher incidence of stillbirths and infant deaths than the rest of Nova Scotia. The ratio of live births is also a troubling phenomenon, not commonly seen even on a global scale. For every healthy girl child born in Pictou County, there are 1.26 boy children born. The global rate is approximately 1:1.05.


But for 47 years the mill has trundled on. And the key to its success—if one might call it a success—most likely lies in the poisoned waters of Boat Harbour.

Briefly, the area was once a tidal estuary of vital importance to the Mi'kmaw people. Elders from Pictou Landing recall dipping baskets in Boat Harbour's waters and collecting a feed of smelts for breakfast. It was a source of life, of food, of medicine and of play.

After colonization, the unique beauty of Boat Harbour was not lost amongst the nature seeking and sun-loving crowd. It was the crown jewel in the once-bustling tourist trade along the North Shore, and in 1925 was shortlisted to be a national park.

Pictou Landing elders also recount the story of the day in 1967 when the Abercrombie Point pulp and paper mill began using the Boat Harbour tidal estuary as an effluent dump. Children contracted rashes from swimming in the waters.

Fish died on masse.

A pipe had been constructed from the mill, the mouth of which spewed out an estimated 70 million liters of raw effluent per day into the newly-minted Effluent Treatment Facility. In reality, the 'facility,' to this day, remains nothing more than a series of settling ponds for the effluent to cool off in before flowing into the tidal estuary and the Northumberland Straight beyond.

The exact chemical composition of the Abercrombie Mill's effluent remains a trade secret, which the Nova Scotia department of Environment will not divulge. Monitoring wells around Abercrombie Mill and Boat Harbour have, over the years, consistently tested above water quality thresholds for a wide variety of heavy metals, including, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, mercury, selenium, and zinc. That monitoring stations along the way to Boat Harbour have found these metals—metals needed for Abercrombie's effluent—would suggest that the waters and shores of Boat Harbour contain them as well.


First Nation Communities in Canada Are Living On Land Filled With Contaminants. Read more here.

Surface water contaminated with these metals has also been found to be running off into adjacent Pictou Harbour, where a 2005 scientific study found that healthy shellfish, when introduced to its waters, promptly contracted leukemia en masse due to municipal and industrial waste.

The link—the reason Boat Harbour has accepted an estimated 1 trillion liters of effluent into its maw—lies now in a 1995 indemnity agreement signed between the province and the mill.

Surmised, it states that if the Abercrombie Mill ever closes, the province of Nova Scotia, have-not Nova Scotia with a provincial debt now in the hundreds of millions of dollars, is saddled with the responsibility of cleaning up the 163-acre toxic parcel now known as the Boat Harbour Effluent Treatment Facility. The price tag associated with such a remediation, after 47 years of dumping, is unknown, but hefty to be sure.

So the mill trundles on and accepts a ten million dollar loan here, a ten million dollar grant there; smaller sums less likely to raise the public's ire above the general low din. While others close down, it cannot afford to. Boat Harbour accepts the mill's poison, while the mill has never once in its history been found to have impacted local groundwater, at least from a bureaucratic standpoint.

Bottom of the barrel proprietors are sought—and found—from faraway Indonesia. Their environmental crimes in their own country are well documented, but are ignored in lieu of photo opportunities with the premier.

Every four years or so, a political party of a varying color promises to be the government to shut down Boat Harbour.

Caught in the squeeze, in a county far from the provincial radar, in a province far from the national radar, is the region the Mi'kmaw peoples once knew as Pik'tuk. Pictou.

Follow Miles Howe on Twitter: @mileshowe