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Chemical Leak in Canada Sparks a First Nations Blockade

The site of the spill is of cultural sensitivity to the Mi'kmaq peoples of Pictou Landing, as it is in direct proximity to a burial ground.

by Miles Howe
Jun 12 2014, 12:25pm

Photo by Miles Howe

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

On Tuesday morning, staff at the Northern Pulp-owned Abercrombie Point pulp and paper mill in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, observed that a pipe carrying raw effluent to its final destination of the Boat Harbor Treatment Facility had sprung a leak and was spewing its contents into the adjacent waters of Pictou Harbor.

Northern Pulp spokesperson Dave MacKenzie could not verify how many hours the leak had been going on for, nor if the pipe itself had been absolutely severed — and was thus spewing its total contents into the harbor.

The official mill stance is that the leak was discovered at about 7AM and the shutdown process: “began immediately and took a couple of hours.”

Pictou Landing First Nation resident Jonathan Beadle, however, suspects that the leak had gone undetected through the previous night — and that the pipe itself was completely ruptured at the leak point.

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Beadle and his son were at the end of the raw effluent pipe at the Boat Harbor Treatment Facility, where the effluent should have been shooting out from.

They were filming video footage for an upcoming documentary on the effects of living adjacent to the facility, considered locally as an environmental disaster.

At this point, on Monday night around 7PM, the pipe, which MacKenzie confirms spews approximately 70 million liters of effluent daily, was dry.

“We were there between about seven and 7:30. I wanted to show my son the devastation brought onto the land, air and water and at the same time explain the impact of what such a hazardous site can do,” says Beadle. “Normally the pipe is spewing raw effluent into the settling ponds of Boat Harbor. The stench coming from the treatment facility was elevated, but the pipe was not running effluent into the settling ponds.”

Beadle has footage of the in-operational pipe from Monday night and it has been confirmed that the mill was running normally throughout the night.

By Tuesday morning, alarmed residents from the small community of Pictou Landing First Nation and the town of Pictou had become aware of the effluent leak. Pictou Landing First Nation chief Andrea Paul was incensed to learn of the spill via Facebook and text message, rather than by representatives of the mill. Her texts directed her to a Northern Pulp-issued media release.

“The media release [suggested] that the spill was under control, that it wasn't really such a big deal,” says Paul. “Then I came down and I was actually really shocked when I saw it...It looked like a swamp...In that area, you can see all the trees bent over, so you can imagine the force when it was first pumping out.”

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Paul confirms that raw effluent was still pumping out of the ruptured pipe at approximately 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning. She then called the band's fisheries officer, who had also not been formally contacted by Northern Pulp. She then contacted the local branch of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who Paul says had not been alerted either.

From the site of the ruptured pipe, as of press time, I observed raw effluent, now slowed to a relative trickle, flowing untreated into the waters of Pictou Harbor. The force of the effluent's path has also carved deep gouges through the shoreline as it made its way to Pictou Harbor, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

Supported by community members, Paul and Pictou Landing band council alerted their community of the emergency situation and descended upon the area of the ruptured pipe.

Investigative crew from the Mi'kmaw Conservation Group gather water and wildlife samples from the site of the spill.

Unsatisfied with the information that Northern Pulp representatives were providing her with concerning their plans to remediate the spill zone — and in particular about an excavator potentially set to dig up the ruptured pipe,

Paul and council decided to set up a snap blockade of the access road. The site of the spill is of extreme cultural sensitivity to the Mi'kmaq peoples of Pictou Landing and beyond, as it is in direct proximity to a traditional burial ground.

By later in the evening, the excavator had been removed and police had visited the scene of the access road blockade. About 50 people had joined the blockade at its high point, which remains in effect today.

Numerous governmental departments are currently examining the spill site, including the Nova Scotia Department of Environment, Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Mi'kmaw Conservation Group. Northern Pulp has also hired a third party consultant to conduct sampling of the area to determine the exact environmental damage.

“The concern of the content of the effluent is that it contains some chemicals,” said Nova Scotia Department of Environment media communications officer Lori Errington. “The biggest concern, really for us, is that there's pulp fiber and lignans. What happens when these enter a water system untreated in large amounts is that they suck the oxygen out of the water and affect the fish and wildlife.”

Indeed, unconfirmed reports and photos from as far away as Melmerby Beach Provincial Park—a popular summertime destination for Maritime nature lovers—show discolored plumage washing ashore.

Errington could not confirm whether the plumes of greenish-brown wash-up were related to the effluent leak, citing an ongoing investigation.

Paul echoes the Department of Environment's concerns to the local fishery, which is a vital source of economy to the First Nation band.

“Fisheries; that's our economy,” says Paul. “We have our commercial, band and core fisheries. And what does all this mean for our fishery? And it's not just the lobster, we also have the rock crab that will be happening right after the lobster. We have the Gaspereau. We have the salmon. You name it, we are fishing it.”

The story at hand is a compelling one, as it brings into focus not only the immediate risk of the effluent spill itself — Paul says that the blockade will remain and no excavation of the site will proceed without the presence of an archaeologist and a clear remediation plan from the mill and the provincial government.

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But Paul also notes in her demands that the Nova Scotia provincial government must address the decades-old issue of the Boat Harbor Effluent Treatment Facility. Simply put, she wants the facility firstly closed and then remediated. Since 1967, Boat Harbor, once a tidal estuary of vital importance to the local Mi'kmaq peoples, has been the mill's effluent treatment dumping site.

Locals consider the site a 163-acre environmental dead zone.

“In '91, '95, '97, 2008, we've received promises of: 'Yes, the province is going to clean this up,'” says Paul. “My ancestors said that these were the issues that were going to happen for using Boat Harbor as an effluent site. It was promised by the province that they would rectify this once it became a septic issue. And now we have to have something concrete.

“The clean up is a piece of this. The second piece is the commitment from the government and the mill that they are going to stop using Boat Harbor as their effluent dumping site and that they are actually going to come up with a plan of how they are going to deal with Boat Harbor and then move their treatment facility off-site and I'm guessing maybe at the mill.”

The blockade of the access point to the burst pipe remains in effect as of press time. There is currently a small police presence on site, but all in attendance are peaceful.