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Aftermath: The effluent spill, the blockade and clean air in Pictou

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Northern Pulp mill, inoperational at sunset on Friday, June 13th, normally spews a cloud of smoke of varying shades of grey. [Photo: Miles Howe]
Northern Pulp mill, inoperational at sunset on Friday, June 13th, normally spews a cloud of smoke of varying shades of grey. [Photo: Miles Howe]

Pik'tuk (Pictou Landing), Nova Scotia – As day turns to night on Friday the 13th of June, 2014, the air is unusually fragrant and refreshing along the shores of Pictou Harbour.

Typically, on any given day, depending on the course of the wind, either one side of the Harbour or the other will undoubtedly be blanketed in a nauseating funk that is vaguely reminiscent of rotten cabbage. Depending on who you ask, the smell might be referred to as 'The smell of money' or 'That G#@$damn mill'.

Of course, as has now been widely circulated, an effluent spill of an unknown but certainly massive quantity took place on these shores at some point during the evening of Monday, June 10th. The spill was detected the morning of June 11th, so at a rate of 70 million litres of effluent run-off per day, whatever the number of million of litres that spilled, it was a lot.

What is left now is the aftermath. The clean-up has begun. A legion of septic trucks, I've lost track of the precise number, has worked through the night to suck up whatever standing effluent and sludge they could from the immediate environs. Most likely their capacity, multiplied by their number – which must be on record in the annals of some governmental department – will be the only official final tally as to the spill's size.

The spill itself, as has also now been widely circulated, took place on a sacred site to the Mi'kmaw people of Pictou Landing. Somewhere along this shore, nestled back in the woods somewhere, is one of their traditional burial grounds. It would appear that even the elders of the community, separated from this portion of land due to its industrial use by their mill neighbours, cannot remember the exact spot.

But the grounds are nearby.

On this night, down by the shore, the guilty section of the ruptured pipe is exposed to the elements like some mid-section of a wounded fibreglass snake. A deep pit of earth, blown away by the force of the streaming effluent, surrounds it. We see it through the links of a blue steel fence and a wrap of caution tape, as one might look upon a monstrosity at the industrial zoo of horrors.

There have been meetings between Pictou Landing's Chief and representatives of the provincial government and the mill. Of course, the question for industry is how to most quickly get things back to the status quo. The town of Pictou lives - and quite literally dies - by this mill. Stillbirths, infant births, cardiac death, cancers of many varieties – all are elevated in Pictou County.

The mill is not the statistical smoking gun that the bureaucratic eye requires to see truth; no provincial government would dare fund such an epidemiological study for fear the barrel might be produced.

Then there is the mill's $500,000 a day question; The burial ground and how to get this mill's Achilles heal of-a-pipe all patched up and filled with effluent again.

The Chief is adamant that no excavator will work this sacred earth without the presence of an archaeologist and a clear plan from the province and the mill on how to proceed. According to the Chief the mill never alerted her to the spill, which rightly irked her and began the blockade that now restricts access to the ruptured pipe.

Of course, the mill is owned by the Indonesian conglomerate Asia Pulp and Paper, a company with a rich history overseas of laying waste to indigenous people's territories. So one really mustn't be too surprised that the Mi'kmaw's burial ground is now quilted in toxic sludge.

If one was disposed to play the blame game, of which there is some merit for the contractual obligations it reveals in this case, one might seek to blame the provincial government of Nova Scotia for allowing the sale of the mill to a company with a high risk investment record and a burgeoning global boycott movement on its products. For there exists an indemnity agreement between the province and the mill; If the mill should ever close, the province is responsible for the monetarily mammoth job of cleaning up Boat Harbour, the effluent dump that for 47 years has suffered the mill's run-off like some 163 acres toxic toilet.

Ah, Boat Harbour. It must truly be one of the most unique toxic schemes ever dreamt up in the fevered brain of industrial profiteers. What is known as A'se'k, or 'the other room' in Mi'kmaw, the traditional importance of Boat Harbour to the Mi'kmaw people cannot be expressed in words. One may as well try to capture the earth-shaking stomp of the buffalo run or the frantic leap and splash of the salmon spawn. Boat Harbour, A'se'k, was a source of fish, of food, of medicine, of play, of life.

Elders from the community recall dipping baskets in the water and collecting a feed of smelts for breakfast.

The same elders also recount the story of the day in 1967 when the mill began using the pristine tidal estuary as their effluent dump. Children, un-alerted to the ecological carnage released upon them, began to immediately contract skin rashes from swimming in A'se'k's waters. The heads of varied species of fish quite literally could be seen gasping in unison at the surface, dying from a lack of oxygen.

Less than two weeks later the shores of A'se'k were littered with the bodies of eels, Gaspereau, smelts, muskrat and birds. The waters are now described as 'Kasti'omi', or molasses, and share their deep brown colour, and something of their consistency.

Chief Paul, clearly an astute political tactician, has included the shut down of Boat Harbour as the mill's private latrine amongst her demands for the removal of the blockade. Provincial governments of blue, red and orange stripes have all made empty promises to the revolving cast of Pictou Landing Chiefs to shut down Boat Harbour. Pictou Landing's financial coffers are bare – not surprisingly business opportunities do not thrive adjacent to a toxic wasteland – and a gas bar and a fishing fleet are the only real sources of revenue to the community. There are no millions for another lawsuit, and the lion's share of a $35 million, 1993, settlement agreement with the federal government remains in trust and has yet to see the light of day.

The talks, now behind closed doors in the thick air of in-camera dealings, are ongoing.

But on this clear night in Pi'ktuk, with a visibility and breathability unmatched in months, one does get the sense that reparations might occur. One wants to trust and believe that nature will heal herself. Not here in this generation or the next.

Or the one after that.

We are not the ones to walk on waters thick with cod. But at the very least, for this however brief moment in time, Boat Harbour, A'se'k, gets to simply not be a dumping ground and we all get to breath clean air in Pi'ktuk.

If Tuesday, June 11th, marked the day that the last litre of effluent ever soured her waters, it would still be one too many, but in many corners of this environmentally tormented neck of the woods it would be a cause for celebration.

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