From pristine to polluted

How a region’s hunger for prosperity led to a legacy of contamination

Barb Sweet
Published on November 29, 2010

Second in a two-part series

Fergie MacKay was not long into his teaching career in Pictou County, N.S., in the late 1960s and times were hard.

There was a downturn at the rail car and steel plant running the length of his hometown. 

Trenton proudly markets itself as the place of the first pouring of steel in British North America and it is one of the county’s five close-knit towns with its surrounding rural communities and villages.

When times were good, thousands of men poured in and out of the plant’s gates during shift changes.

Thursday was payday and workers would flood the shopping district of New Glasgow, stocking up on canned goods and sale items for the inevitable layoffs between rail car orders and cyclical busts in the worldwide rail transportation sector.

So when the announcement was made that a pulp and paper giant was to open Scott Maritimes in 1967 on nearby Abercrombie Point, it spelled economic relief for the whole county. The coal mines were dying and the county was years away from luring a Michelin Tire plant.

“We were starving economically,” recalls MacKay,  a Trenton councillor and retired rural high school teacher.

“The pulp mill was seen as a godsend.”

Pulp and paper was a lucrative industry with no end in sight then — a good-paying job at the mill set a family up for life. And it also brought jobs in the woods and in trucking.

But along with the pulp mill came Boat Harbour, a now infamous tidal lagoon where 25 million gallons of wastewater a day from the bleach kraft pulp mill was to go before being released into the Northumberland Strait. The provincial government was to own and operate Boat Harbour for 25 years, eventually handing operation over to the pulp mill.

Not every industrial story ends in a debacle the magnitude of Boat Harbour. But the use of a natural body of water for industrial waste — pulp, mining or otherwise — is something MacKay and another activist, Bob Christie, warn against.

“This was a cheap way of doing it. Once that happens, it’s gone forever,” MacKay says.

“People got blinded by saying how much this thing was going to employ.”

In 1967, residents were assured the wastewater from Boat Harbour would be fit to drink, swim and fish in.

The Pictou Landing Mi’kmaq reserve — which borders the lagoon — was lured into supporting the plan by taking band officials to New Brunswick to a supposed treatment plant where an official took a drink of water, says activist, author and former federal civil servant Daniel Paul, who later helped the band take on Indian Affairs.

The facility wasn’t treating industrial waste, he says.


When Boat Harbour came onstream, not only was the tidal lagoon polluted with a toxic cocktail of dioxins, furans, chloride, mercury and other heavy metals, but Lighthouse Beach in the reserve was ruined.

“It was a mile of sand. I remember going, as a kid, to Lighthouse Beach. It was just the most gorgeous beach in the world,” MacKay remembers.

For decades, coffee-coloured water and foam washed up on beaches along a stretch of the northeast coast, which boasts the warmest waters north of the Carolinas.

In the early 1970s, MacKay and some of the prominent members of the county formed the Northumberland Strait Pollution Control Committee.

“Initially, the effluent, it just came roaring out of this four-foot pipe (from the mill to Boat Harbour). It just went all through the woods and down through,” MacKay says.

The effluent now filters through settling ponds and out into the Strait.

“To clean up Boat Harbour would probably take all the money in Ottawa,” he says.


Bob Christie’s home — a family property dating to 1832 — is one kilometre from Boat Harbour.

In the early 1970s, Christie worked as an engineer at Canso Chemicals, a chemical manufacturer for the pulp mill.

He, too, remembers the beauty of Lighthouse Beach, which on a summer day would attract 150 people. But effluent from Boat Harbour caused contaminated foam five- to six-feet high to roll ashore.

Beginning in the 1980s, Christie was a key figure in Citizens Against Pollution, which took up the fight against the toxic lagoon.

But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, says Christie, with the rail car plant down to 800 men from a peak of 2,000, county residents were encouraged to keep quiet about the mill. The effluent mess and  its foul odour, after all, was the smell of money.

And faced with feeding their kids on unemployment or welfare and getting a good-paying job, people worried about the environment later, he says.

The times were different — there was no environmental assessments — and the Nova Scotia government he said, was laughed at by the industry for taking responsibility for the effluent, the costliest part of running the mill, as well as supplying free water from a river.

He recalls a conversation with a retired mill manager who commented, “Bob, how godawful stupid that government was.”



In the early years, Christie says, the effluent flowed right into the Northumberland Strait. Years later, after the outcry,  giant aerators and settling ponds were installed. But even that did not come easy.

Christie recalls meeting with two cabinet minsters and other officials mulling over borrowing aerators from New Brunswick.

One minister asked if the departments could come up with the money. According to Christie, the other looked him in the face and said, “If I thought I could get three votes from it I would.”

“How crass. They really didn’t give a damn,” Christie says now.

“The province was stupid when it came to effluent. It is responsible for the legacy of the pollution of Boat Harbour.”

Christie, who first became involved because of the effects of pollution on fish habitat, believes the Boat Harbour of today is  far different and less toxic than its early days when he would leave the site retching.

But he remains adamant that no body of water should be offered up as a settling pond.

“Not any sane person today would use a natural unspoiled habitat and turn it into toxic pit,” he says.

“Because it’s cheap, it’s easy. Because they don’t give a damn and want to keep every cent in their pocket they can. The bottom line is the dollar — nothing else.”

He says he was called on to give expert advice for a panel reviewing metal mining effluent regulations in the early 1990s — a forerunner of since-updated regulations which will govern operations in Long Harbour, Placentia Bay.

He describes the process as 100 different provincial and industry interests arguing 12-14 hours a day.

“At the end of the day, what came out was the lowest common denominator everyone would be  happy with,” Christie says.

“Are the regulations working? Yeah, if your want lowest denominator.”

Christie says he believes a proper mine tailings pond should be lined.

“No mining company wants to do that. It would chew up a third to half of the profit. The legacy is who bears that cost?”

The Mi’kmaq reserve  eventually settled for $35 million, but is still fighting over how Boat Harbour is to be cleaned up. It has filed a lawsuit, seeking a court order forcing the province to relocate the facility, estimated at $90 million. Government efforts are underway to clean up Lighthouse Beach.

Northern Pulp, the latest of several owners of the mill, says it cut the treatment area by more than 80 per cent as of July due to new regulations.


The ongoing boom and bust of the Trenton car works again set the Nova Scotia county scrambling for another major employer in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

One of those industries was a resurrection of coal mining. In 1992, 26 miners lost their lives in the Westray mine methane explosion, which  Justice Peter Richard, head of an inquiry into the disaster called a “story of incompetence, of mismanagement and of bureaucratic bungling.”

The rail car plant closed up for good in 2006. All hope of another resurrection ended for many in the town when the landmark ivy-covered brick office — which always stood out from the plant — was razed.

Like Long Harbour, the county is now pinning its hopes on an industry in town.

Daewoo is a wind turbine manufacturing plant that will occupy the former rail care plant buildings.

Ken Kavanagh, a retired teacher from Bell Island, a Council of Canadians spokesman and chairman of the Sandy Pond Alliance opposing use of a 38-hectare lake for mine tailings in Long Harbour, says while the industries and times are different, there is a similarity with Boat Harbour — the economic pressure placed on residents to compromise the environment for jobs.

After 40 years, he wonders if the environmental regime is more sound today.

“It’s stacked against the community and ordinary citizens,” he says.

He said the government is allowing, through its regulations and acceptance of  environmental  assessments, the act of taking a beautiful, pristine pond and destroying it with toxic waste.

“Things haven’t changed a great deal,” Kavanagh says.

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