Nova Scotia·Reporter's Notebook

An 'unnerving' walk on Boat Harbour's contaminated floor

CBC reporter Paul Withers discovers that walking on Nova Scotia's largest contaminated site is like stepping into a bouncy castle. It's springy and it wobbles.

CBC reporter Paul Withers discovers the soil is springy, much like a bouncy castle

CBC reporter Paul Withers (right) speaks with Boat Harbour cleanup project manager Ken Swain at a section where the spongy bottom has been exposed. (CBC)

I am walking on top of Nova Scotia's largest environmental contaminated site and the experience is unnerving, and not just because of the organic and inorganic chemicals accumulated from 50 years of toxic pulp effluent.

The fact is the floor of Boat Harbour bounces, much like a bouncy castle. It's springy and it wobbles.

It's not exactly what I had expected when I went to interview cleanup manager Ken Swain at the infamous waste-water treatment facility.

Every day, tens of millions of litres of toxic effluent from the nearby Northern Pulp mill are piped into settling ponds, coves and lagoons that make up Boat Harbour in Pictou County.

This spring, a 240-metre impermeable earth barrier was built to isolate one of the coves as part of a pilot project to test technical options.

As the fill was dumped in to build the barrier, it created what is known as a mud wave, exposing the original harbour bottom — shells and all from when it was a tidal estuary, along with the contaminated sediment.

What Swain shows me is the bottom of the floor of Boat Harbour.

You can see, touch, smell and walk on the exposed sediment. The contaminated layer is black and oily between your fingers.

By pulp mill standards, it hardly smells at all.

Swain tells me the wobbling surface could be natural and unrelated to the pollution underfoot — or maybe it is related.

Tens of millions of litres of toxic waste water are piped daily from the Northern Pulp mill into Boat Harbour. (CBC)

When Swain first explained the cleanup plan to me in December 2015, he said the pilot project would reveal whether the contaminated material, which is fluffy underwater, would dry out or cause a serious odour problem.

On both counts, the news is encouraging, so far.

And Boat Harbour could use some good news.

Having started covering the issue in 1988, I consider myself late to this long-running story. By then, the mill had been pumping effluent into Boat Harbour for 21 years.

Decades of concerns

And for just about as long, there were complaints from the Pictou Landing First Nation and others in the area that the treatment lagoon was an environmental mess.

Also with me on this latest tour of Boat Harbour is Chief Andrea Paul of the Pictou Landing First Nation. She is wearing sandals and resists the temptation to walk on the spongy surface.

For her, construction of the barrier and active consultations with the province are a sign of progress and a direct consequence of a protest three years ago when the mill effluent pipe broke at Pictou Landing.

A peaceful protest in 2014 set the wheels in motion for the closure of the waste-treatment plant in Boat Harbour. (CBC)

I covered the protest.

And the image that remains were the enforcers — a group of older women from Pictou Landing First Nation calmly sitting on lawn chairs blockading the scene of the leak.

The blockade was lifted when the McNeil government agreed to take action.

Is the end in sight?

Paul says it's closer than it's ever been.


Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.