Aim to improve: Northern Pulp says upgrades continue

Adam MacInnis
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Driving up to the Boat Harbour Treatment Facility, Northern Pulp environmental manager Dave Davis talks with some regret about the land the provincial government expropriated from families in the 1960s to build the waste treatment facility and even the location of it – decisions neither he nor anyone else now at his company had anything to do with.

“This is not what most people want to live next to,” Davis said.  “We didn’t pick it in the first place, but it’s the hand we’re dealt.” 

Despite that, Davis maintains the facility is properly managed and meets all environmental requirements. It receives third party testing and is monitored by the Nova Scotia Department of Environment on a regular basis. 

The deal crafted by the government of the day in the 1960s was that if the pulp mill would move there, the government itself would provide the water in to the business and the treatment of waste effluent. It was a way to lure big business to the area and create jobs in an area that desperately needed them. 

The land the treatment facility sits on is still owned by the province, but has been leased since 1995 by the pulp mill, which pays for the operation of the facility and has made numerous upgrades there.

Anger over expropriated land may be all but forgotten, but today complaints range from fears that the effluent from the treatment facility could be carcinogenic to concerns about the odorous plume from the pulp mill itself. The concerns have brought the issue to the attention of environmentalist Erin Brockovich and onto the pages of the Globe and Mail.

They are concerns that Davis and Northern Pulp’s general manager Don Breen hear about on a constant basis, but they say much misinformation has been spread and there is an overall misconception about what is done at the mill and at the treatment facility. 

Breen himself lives in Abercrombie, just a short distance from the entrance of the mill. 

“As general manager it frustrates me a lot,” he said. “We have a lot of hard working employees; we have a lot of dedicated folks here. I know it hurts the employees. I hear about it. They express concern to me. They don’t think we’re getting a fair story at times. A lot of the actual workers on the floor have expressed that to me.”

That’s why management has made an effort to meet with local politicians and groups to talk about the mill and the treatment facility. They’ve given tours and talked to local NDP candidates, Jamie Baillie and his three candidates, members of the Pictou County Chamber of Commerce and members of Pictou town council. They’ve also extended an invitation and are waiting for a response from Stephen McNeil and the Liberal party.

While some would portray the mill management’s goals as being at odds with that of a Facebook group that’s formed of those concerned about the mill’s pollution, Breen says they have much in common.

“We’d like to meet with a cross-section of the Facebook group, align our objectives and move forward and make improvements,” Breen said. “That’s really what we want to do.”

Breen says he has made multiple attempts at setting up an interview with Matt Gunning who is one of the leaders of the Facebook group related to Northern Pulp. Gunning however told The News he wants to wait to meet with the company until after he’s met with all the political parties. Gunning has met with the Liberals and Conservative leaders, but is waiting to talk with NDP leader Darrell Dexter.

Breen gave The News the same presentation he’s giving to the politicians, which included what they’ve done to help improve the smell from the plant to some of what they’d like to do in the future.


Some past improvements include:

• A reduction of 70 per cent in odour from 2010 levels by incinerating four odorous plumes. The project cost $8.7 million.

•  Upgraded the power boiler in order to reduce dependency on oil and to reduce greenhouse gases. The project cost $15 million.

• Upgraded power boiler scrubber to reduce particulate levels at a cost of  $2 million.

• Installed a new 4,000 foot pipeline under the East River at a cost of $3.1 million


With the help of the government, the company will be installing a new precipitator to replace the old one that’s been on the building since it first opened in 1967. The precipitator will cost approximately $20 million and will be installed by early 2015, Breen said.

One of the common misconceptions Breen said is that there is no third party testing or that somehow the Department of Environment is ignoring the business. Neither is true, he said. The company pays between $150,000 and $200,000 for third party testing, which is sent to the Department of Environment. They also are in regular communication with the Department of Environment.

He’s also heard reports of people saying the company burns sludge. That also isn’t true, he said.

Another misconception is that the plume from the mill is all pollution. In reality, most of the plume is water vapour from the manufacturing process.

That said, Breen admits the mill will always have some smell simply because it is a kraft pulp mill. “I’m not sure of any Kraft mill in the world that has no odour.“

There are some that smell less though and the company wants to work to be more like them.

“We believe in continuous improvement,” he said. “There are things that we can do and things we want to do.”

“We can talk all we want about the past and nobody’s perfect. To me we need to focus on the future. What can we do at the plant here to almost make the plant invisible from an environmental point of view.” 

Organizations: Nova Scotia Department of, NDP, Globe and Mail Department of Environment Pictou County Chamber of Commerce Pictou town council

Geographic location: Abercrombie, East River

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Recent comments

  • Ian Fraser
    October 27, 2013 - 19:37

    I listened to Mr Davis provide his detailed explanation and I appreciate Mr Breen lives adjacent to the Northern Pulp Mill. The particulate matter in the airborne effluents of the mill are not addresses nor are the heavy metals within Boat Harbour. Bacteria/ fungi eat organic matter. The liquid effluents containing alkaline (high pH) contaminated waters with heavy metals (even at trace concentrations from daily production) are hazardous to the environment due to the years of constant use. Boat Harbour is not a man made industrial waste settling pond with liners and controlled treatment practices. It is a pond that once was a fish habitat. Today in 2013, it is no longer acceptable to dump thousands of liters of contaminated waters into a water table linked to the residents of Pictou Landing. Mr Davis is trying to create a positive spin on behalf of Northern Pulp. The 2013 pollution practices for air and water effluents are no longer acceptable. Pictou County residents desire to better. The fact that airborne effluents are not even considered as part of the waste management practices is most unfortunate

  • PC Lifer
    September 23, 2013 - 06:35

    A lot of attention has been going northern pulps way as of late and rightfully so. But when it comes to cancer rates in the area you also have to look at other businesses and factors. We have a coal burning power plant. The work places of Michelin and Trenton works/maratime steel in the past which are also not very healthy, our smoking and obesity rates also play a part. It is very multi factorial and norther pulp just happens to be the most visible discharge even though probably not the most carcinogenic. Take pur types of jobs and add in our types of lifestyles and it will add up for sure

  • concerned
    September 21, 2013 - 10:43

    "Far from being a toxic pond", I'd like to see him eat a fish out of there. Or perhaps go for a dip in the harbour near the discharge!

    • billybob
      September 21, 2013 - 13:38

      It is disturbing to see someone with such a smile on their face with the toxic waste dump in the background that is being discharged directly into the straight! It is not a joke and nothing to smile about Dave! It is also disappointing to see this kind of fluff piece being touted by the News without any journalistic integrity to look for the truth and inform on facts...

  • Jane Thomson
    September 21, 2013 - 08:20

    Invitation to those interested in info without the NP advertorial -- join the Facebook group "Clean Up the Pictou County Pulp Mill"

  • Graham Johnston
    September 21, 2013 - 06:38

    Surely company managers must turn their minds to the obvious issue. They know that the highest cancer rates in any Canadian province are right here in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. They also know that Northern Pulp is one of the most obvious polluters. It seems to follow then, that they should understand community concern about a possible correlation between the mill’s discharge and community health issues. I therefore have one question for Northern Pulp: “Does your mill’s effluent, either water or air, contain toxic or carcinogenic substances?