September 17, 2014

Pictou’s Trials and Tribulations: The Tragedy of Boat Harbour

Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul
 (second from Right) - Photo: Pictou Advocate
By Peter Bazarov

In Northern Nova Scotia, tucked away between the forests and the sea, sits the small community of Pictou—home to 3000 people, and tragically, one of Nova Scotia’s most shameful secrets.  Though it is located in the beautiful Nova Scotia highlands, with beaches facing the warm lapping waters of the Northumberland Strait, Pictou is nevertheless avoided by most tourists, and is best known instead for its legendary ill health. Cancer, heart disease, lung disease, rates of miscarriage and infant death; in all of these Pictou is either the worst county in the province or among the worst.  The waters of Pictou Harbour test positive for a variety of toxic heavy metals, and the air tests positive for pollutant rates thousands of percent above Federal limitations.

The source of all this? A dammed off poisonous stew, a toilet for the toxic excretions of the local pulp and paper mill—Boat Harbour.

Looking at Boat Harbour today, with its black murky waters topped with brownish foam, letting off foul steam, one finds it difficult to imagine that it was once beautiful and alive: teeming with fish, clams, and other marine life—its clear salty waters providing a place to play, swim, or go fishing.
Before its transformation into a toxic dumping pond following the opening of the Scott Paper Mill in 1967, Boat Harbour was a pristine tidal estuary, whose crystal waters were a prime attraction of the local tourist trade; at one point it was even short listed to become a National Park. But more than just a place to stretch out on the shore and get a tan, Boat Harbour also served as a place of livelihood for the Mi’kmaw First Nation who lived on its banks. Elders from the Pictou Landing reserve recall the waters of Boat Harbour as a plentiful source of food and medicine for the people of the band.
The beginning of the end for Boat Harbour, and the start of its toxic legacy can be traced back to 1963, when the Nova Scotia Provincial Government created the Nova Scotia Water Authority (NSWA)—a body that was to control all the waterways and bodies of water in the province. The NSWA was headed by pulp industry veteran John Bates, who saw in Pictou nothing but opportunity.
In the context of rising unemployment due to the decline of coal mining in Nova Scotia, Bates proposed that a solution could be found in the manufacture of pulp and paper which, in the North Shore, would take the form of the construction of the Scott Paper Mill. Under his guidance, Scott Paper was offered a most generous deal. At the behest of the Water Authority, the provincial government would provide a kingly portion of crown land, property tax exemptions, and free water infrastructure. But wait! There’s more! The NSWA also offered cheap waste processing, with Boat Harbour being provided as a convenient location for Scott Paper to dump tens of millions of litres of waste every single day.

However, there were barriers that needed to be overcome for the Water Authority’s promises to Scott Paper to be fulfilled; the province would have to secure the rights to the private lands adjacent to Boat Harbour. Lands held on one side by Pictou county citizens, and on the other by the Mi’kmaw band of Pictou Landing. Dealing with the private residents was easy; the province simply expropriated them, tossing them a measly $635 as payment for forcibly taking their land. But it would not be so simple with the Mi’kmaw, their land was protected under federal law, and the province would have to obtain their co-operation if it wanted rights to their land.

To get the land the NSWA set about trying to convince the Mi’kmaw that they would have nothing to lose with Boat Harbour’s transformation into a waste treatment facility. Engineers sent by the NSWA testified to the band that the Harbour would remain as pristine as it ever was, if perhaps a little discoloured. In one particularly infamous episode, the band elders were taken to what was supposed to be a similar treatment facility—a lagoon in New Brunswick—where one of the engineers drank a glass of water straight from the lagoon, in an attempt to prove the cleanliness of the water. Of course, what he didn’t mention was that that the water he drank had never come into contact with any effluent. This “treatment facility” was not yet operational, and would not start for another 2 years.  Eventually, inundated with gross misinformation and outright lies, the Mi’kmaw finally conceded the rights to Boat Harbour, and were paid $60,000 for the trouble. The Mill opened, and effluent began to pour into Boat Harbour on November 14th 1967.

The effects were visible and immediate. Despite any and all promises attesting to its purity, it was more than the colour of the water that changed. Children who went swimming began to develop rashes, and soon enough, the fish began to die off.  Over time, as tens of millions of litres of industrial waste poured into Boat Harbour daily, it was transformed into what it is today—a murky pool of blackish water, covered in churning poison foam, releasing clouds of toxic and foul smelling steam.

Boat Harbour as it looks today - Photo: Miles (Vice)
Since then, there have been a number of efforts to remedy the ecological disaster that unfolded at Boat Harbour. In the mid-1970s the province paid for and installed a multi-million dollar system of aerators and settling ponds that were supposed to remove some of the toxic materials and re-oxygenate the water. It was hoped that this would purify the harbour, and perhaps even bring back some marine life—it was to no avail.

In 1986, the band filed a claim against the federal government, arguing that the government had failed in its duty to protect the band’s interests.  Stating, “Boat Harbour has become seriously polluted…as a result; members of the band have suffered and continue to suffer damage to their health and the enjoyment of the amenities of their reserve lands.”  The government responded coolly, stating that after the installation of aerators and settling ponds any issues that existed with Boat Harbour were resolved.  However, after a court order forced the government to hand over much of the documentation it had on the pollution of Boat Harbour, it was forced to concede. The case never went to trial, the government settled, paying out $35 million dollars in damages; the question of what to actually do with Boat Harbour was set aside.

Since then, many promises to clean up Boat Harbour have been made to the people of Pictou by successive Provincial Governments, but not one has been fulfilled. In that time, the Mill has seen numerous owners, and many government bail-outs. The most recent owner being the infamous conglomerate Asia Pulp and Paper, an organization with one of the worst environmental records on the plant; its most recent bailout in 2011—a grant of $1 million.

It is likely that little would have changed in these years since, if not for yet another tragedy in June of this year. A pipe carrying effluent from the mill to Boat Harbour burst and spilt its contents over a sacred Mi’kmaw burial ground, on the shores of Pictou Harbour. This in turn, triggered a blockade by the band, which prevented repair of the pipe and a reopening of the mill. Their demands were simple: end the tragedy, clean-up Boat Harbour. After a week, the province acquiesced. The provincial government signed an (arguably problematic)* agreement with the band wherein they promised to move legislation forward next year, in which a clear timetable for the clean-up of Boat Harbour would be established. One can only hope that this time, the promise will be kept.

*In the final section of the agreement, under section 2(d) it is written: “Should the province fail to finalize, by good faith negotiations, the  timelines for cessation of effluent…the province shall pay to the band an ex gratia payment of $1 million.” In other words, the price for any dishonesty by the province will be an eminently affordable sum; a price which the province has already paid numerous times just to keep the mill running.

This article is published in Issue 17 of the new Rebel Youth!

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