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Matt Dort on Northern Pulp effluents and the Northumberland Strait: It’s about more than meeting (flawed) regulations

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The fourth and final article in the Chronicle Herald series on Northern Pulp emhasizes how the Northumberland Strait is not a healthy ecosystem anyway, and praises the federal Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations (PPER).

But meeting these regulations shouldn’t give anyone a sense of relief. There are so many other factors to take into consideration. “Meeting regulations” is like saying that a speed limit is 100km/hr and therefore I am going to drive that speed regardless of the weather, the condition of my vehicle, the amount of traffic, and whatever else is going on on the road.

The Strait is at its max threshold for pollution. Proposing to dump 32,000,000,000 litres per year of hot, chemically laced fresh (no salinity) water that contains deleterious substances into the ocean is not any more justifiable just because “other industries also do it.”

Every industry needs to step up their game and do better. However, Northern Pulp is actually offered an opportunity to really improve and be a leader in this province and for all mills in North America. Yet their current waste proposal is not industry leading. It is “what’s most economical for them and will meet regulations.” It is 2019 and that is simply not good enough.

Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations (PPER) in Canada cover two matters; total suspended solids (TSS) and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD.) Even though total discharges of TSS and BOD in pulp and paper effluent decreased by approximately 90% and 97% respectively from 1970-2008, pulp mill effluents continue to have harmful impacts on fish, fish habitat and the environment.

Information gathered through environmental effects monitoring (EEM) at all Canadian mills points to the disturbing conclusion that although mills are meeting regulations and passing the PPER toxicity test, 70% are having harmful effects on aquatic life and habitat, and 55% are having harmful effects on the larger environment.

This information led the federal department of Environment and Climate Change to undertake a modernization review of pulp and paper effluent regulations in 2017.

“Results from EEM studies and the changing realities of the pulp and paper industry indicate a need to modernize the PPER to improve environmental protection,” the department states. If meeting regulations is not enough to prevent harm, neither is passing toxicity tests.

Only one toxicity test is required under Canadian pulp and paper regulations. The required LC-50 test is for acute lethality. For this test, an effluent is considered acutely lethal if the treated effluent at 100% concentration kills more than 50% of the Rainbow Trout exposed to it during a 96-hour period.

Long-term effects, including impacts on reproduction or growth, cumulative impacts on fish habitat and the larger environment or accumulation of substances harmful for human consumption are not regulated under the PPER. Testing for environmental effects is required for information purposes.

Only two mills in Canada test for and report impacts of effluent on the usability of fish resources by humans. Effluent from pulp and paper mills is regulated at the federal level principally by the Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations (PPER), which form part of the Fisheries Act. The standards that apply to pulp effluent today were adopted in 1992 and have remained unchanged for 25 years. Highly toxic dioxins and furans are regulated under a separate Act.

70% of pulp & paper mills are having harmful effects on aquatic life and habitat despite meeting current regulations . Long term impacts on reproduction and growth are not regulated under PPER. Federal regulations cover only a few of the recognized harmful substances in pulp mill effluent. For example, there are no federal regulations for AOX compounds, a component of pulp effluent in mills that bleach with chlorine or a chlorine compound. AOX compounds are recognized as extremely toxic. They are not easily broken down by bacteria and thus bioaccumulate in the environment. Yet they are not included in PPER regulations. Neither are phenols, toluene, chloroform or chemical oxygen demand (COD).

For 25 years the regulations that apply to pulp effluent have remained unchanged. Provinces may go beyond Federal standards and adopt stricter regulations for effluent from pulp mills. British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec have adopted stricter regulations. Nova Scotia does not have regulations, but sets limits through individual industrial approvals. The EU has more protective regulations than Canada does.

Some may not know but similar proposals in 1993 to discharge pulp effluent into the Northumberland Strait were dropped or rejected in the past due to environmental concerns. The fishermen know this. Northern Pulp knows it.

The Chronicle Herald article also mentions that an O2 delignification system would be part of the new waste process. That is not entirely true. Communications from Northern Pulp executives suggests that there is no specific timeline set aside for this.  Meeting minutes from a recent NP meeting show it will “follow after the Treatment plant is complete”. The question of who would pay for this is not agreed upon or at least made public so as of right now it is more on the wish list as opposed to it being part of the process.

As well, comparisons in the article between the Fraser River and the Strait are misguided. The two ecological systems are so unique they cannot even be compared

  • The obvious one is that the Fraser RIver is a river. Constantly flowing, no tide in the majority of it, completely different currents etc.
  • The Fraser river is 1375 km long and flows from the Rocky Mountains. The Strait’s length is 257 kms and it is part of the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Salmon migrate up the Fraser River from the ocean. They do not reside in the river like shellfish do in the ocean.

Finally, The article doesn’t mention risks to human health. The community of Pictou Landing First Nation have suffered more than most from the Boat Harbour pollution via water and air. The surrounding communities also have felt the negative impacts due to the air quality.

The new waste proposal includes a plan to burn contaminated sludge in a power boiler which raises new threats to air quality. The waste sludge contains toxins which would be released through the stacks of the mill’s power boiler.

The proposal is to “dewater the sludge prior to mixing it with bark and other wood waste for combustion in the mill’s power boiler.” This is the same power boiler that is currently and repeatedly failing stack emissions tests. Problems with air quality from mill emissions have been documented for years. Lack of appropriate monitoring and enforcement already puts area residents at risk. Now, Northern Pulp is considering adding sludge containing toxins to the combustion mix, increasing health risks from Northern Pulp’s air emission

It’s 2019, Fisheries are a crucial part of the economy in Nova Scotia and neighboring provinces. Oceans are under increasing stress. Dead zones are growing. Protection of fish, fish habitat, fisheries and our health all tell us that we cannot sweep identified risks under the rocks based on soothing assurances of “meets regulations” and “passes toxicity tests.”


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