Northern Pulp effluent pipe protest draws huge crowds on land and sea in Pictou

The rally in Pictou, N.S., drew hundreds of fishing boats, pleasure boats and concerned citizens from all three Maritime provinces.

'When we sell Nova Scotia to the world, we're selling it as 'Canada's Ocean Playground,' says Pictou resident

Demonstrators gathered on Friday to protest plans by Northern Pulp to run an effluent pipe into the Northumberland Strait. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Hundreds of people from all three Maritime provinces gathered Friday in Pictou, N.S., to protest Northern Pulp's plan to put an effluent pipe into the Northumberland Strait.

Many chanted "No pipe, no way" as they marched from the local arena to the town's waterfront. Organizers estimated at least 1,000 people attended the protest.

Dozens of fishing boats and pleasure craft sailed into Pictou Harbour, some flying the Mi'kmaq Grand Council flag.

"We are the voice of this water, we are the voice of everything that lives in this water," said Andrea Paul, who was on board one of the vessels and is chief of Pictou Landing First Nation. 

The pipe is supposed to replace the 140-hectare waste-water lagoon at Boat Harbour, which the government has promised to close by 2020.

The replacement would discharge about 70 million litres of treated effluent a day via a subsea pipe directly into the Northumberland Strait, several kilometres from the mill.

For 50 years, pulp mill waste water — from several mill owners — has been piped under the East River into the Boat Harbour lagoon. From there, it is aerated in settling ponds before being released about a week later into the Northumberland Strait.

Jill Graham-Scanlan, president of Friends of the Northumberland Strait, told CBC's Information Morning that even though the effluent is being treated, it's still industrial waste. 

"It'll contain all kinds of toxins — metals and other nasty substances that we in no way want flowing out into the clean, pristine waters of our Northumberland Strait and into rich fishing grounds," she said.

The plan for a new pipe hit a snag this week when recent sonar imaging showed the proposed route of the pipe and its outfall position will have to change due to a shipwreck, evidence of ice scouring, a shoal and a collapsed pier in the area.

Hundreds of people were at the waterfront in Pictou. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

The company is looking for a modification to the proposed route, not a new route, Kathy Cloutier, a Northern Pulp spokesperson, said in an email.

She said whatever Northern Pulp decides, the mill's "commitment to the community and environment will not be compromised."

The mill directly employs 330 people, and supports another 1,500 or so jobs in the forestry sector.

Mike van den Heuvel, a science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, says it's a mistake to blame changes in the Northumberland Strait, including loss of biodiversity, solely on Northern Pulp.

There are hundreds of creeks and rivers, some carrying sediment and pesticides, flowing into the Strait, he told CBC's Mainstreet Halifax.

He says the portion of the mill's nutrient input into the strait is tiny, probably less than one per cent overall.

"Is there nutrients coming out of the mill? Yes. But it's not very much, when you consider it all as a whole."

Van den Heuvel, who studies the effects of agriculture and chemical use on freshwater and coastal environments, said the new treatment proposed for the effluent, based on the design, should be an improvement.

You won't be able to detect the wastewater plume more than 100 or 200 metres away from the pipeline, he said. 

Proposed plan puts Canada's Ocean Playground 'at risk'

Wes Surrett, general manager at the Pictou Lodge Beach Resort, said the proposed plan for the effluent pipe risks turning off tourists.

"When you're selling tourism, you're selling a brand and when we sell Nova Scotia to the world, we're selling it as 'Canada's Ocean Playground,' and here on the Northumberland Strait we sell our beautiful, sandy beaches, our warm swimmable waters and our fresh, local seafood," he told CBC's Information Morning.

"It is our belief that this proposed plan puts all of that at risk and once you tarnish that brand, then we're very concerned what that might do to potential tourism dollars down the road."

Some of the dozens of boats at the protest. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Premier Stephen McNeil told reporters outside Province House on Thursday that government must find balance between what's good for the economy and what's good for the environment. 

"There are those, though, that are always on opposite sides … those that would prefer that there is no development and there's others who believe there should be development with no rules," said McNeil. 

"Our job is always to strike the balance to make sure that we protect the environment for future generations at the same time providing economic opportunity for those who are currently working in the economy of Nova Scotia." 

He said how much the province will be contributing to the new treatment facility hasn't been finalized yet.

The Northern Pulp mill is shown in the background. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

More rigorous environmental assessment

Graham-Scanlan said she disagrees with the government's decision to "fast-track" the province's environmental assessment process by only requiring a Class I assessment on the replacement effluent pipe project, which she said isn't rigorous enough.

"So there's only a 30-day period for the public to view the plan and provide its comments to the environment minister. At that time, the environment minister has only 20 days to review all of the public concerns, review Northern Pulp's proposal and at the end of that 20 days the environment minister makes their decision," she said.

Some people in the area want the federal government to intervene and do a more thorough environmental assessment. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Graham-Scanlan said she's asking the federal government to take over the environmental assessment process through the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

"We believe that that process will be much more rigorous and give the due attention that this project requires," she said.

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With files from Information Morning