An environmental lawyer says there’s a fear the environment is at risk under Nova Scotia’s model of approving polluters' emission limits on a case-by-case basis

For people in Pictou County, questions about the Northern Pulp mill and its emissions are hard to ignore. Complaints about the stinking smog generated by the mill have been growing, with the Lung Association receiving an influx of calls from people worried about the health effects.

Particulate levels that create smog get tested twice a year by the province. The latest test, completed in November, showed levels 78 per cent above what's allowed near the mill in Abercrombie Point. The levels have not been tested since.

Meinhard Doelle, director of The Marine and Environmental Law Institute at  Dalhousie University, explained to CBC's Mainstreet how emission limits and approvals come down to a facility-by-facility basis in Nova Scotia.

“It’s fairly common on a provincial level in Canada,” said Doelle. “Either you do it by a case-by-case basis through an approval or you set a standard across the industry.”

According to a posting on the Nova Scotia Department of Environment’s Facebook, “limits are set individually for each industrial approval.”

“So we really can't refer to an ‘emission limit’ for particulate matter for the whole province. It would be in each approval for each company that emits particulate matter.”

Doelle says the piecemeal approach is often preferred by provincial governments because they can weigh the economic benefits of a plant against the environmental impact.

“Allows you more flexibility to decide whether in a particular context the environmental harm is warranted because of the social or economic benefits,” he said.

'The general fear is that it will always be hard to say no to the economic benefits.' - Mienhard Doelle

“The greatest fear and greatest risk associated with the case-by-case approach is that the environment loses out in that process...The general fear is that it will always be hard to say no to the economic benefits. If you’re faced with a situation where an applicant says, ‘Well I can only meet this standard or I can only clean up the effluent to this level or I can’t operate here I’ll have to go elsewhere.’”

Doelle says he has come across research showing standards aren’t as stringent as they would be if they were applied across the board.

Court cases low

Air emissions at the Northern Pulp mill will be tested again on Aug. 18, before a temporary shutdown for regular maintenance.

“[Self-reporting] is a common part of the compliance and enforcement system but it shouldn’t be the only component,” Doelle said.

He says self-monitoring should be combined with random inspections.

The Department of Environment has issued directives to the mill in the past, ordering the company to fix the amount of emitted pollution.

Doelle says if a mill doesn't comply, the province has tools like warnings, prosecutions  and ministerial orders at their disposal.

“None of those tools solve the basic problem that you have when you have a non-complying facility and it's clear that it will take time for the facility to come into compliance with its terms of approval, the choice the regulator has is to either work with that facility to bring it back into compliance or shut it down,” he said.

Doelle says there have been few prosecutions in Nova Scotia.

“The optimist in me would hope that part of that is the Environment Act has been in place for a longer period of time,” he said. “But that’s speculation on my part.”