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Exclusive: Monitoring of Abercrombie mill site shows extensive surface water contamination

Surface water monitoring sites include heavy metal contaminated run-off towards Pictou Harbour

by Miles Howe

Position of wells, landfills and surface water collection stations at the Abercrombie Point site.
Position of wells, landfills and surface water collection stations at the Abercrombie Point site.
The Abercrombie Point Pulp and Paper mill, bordered on three sides by Pictou Harbour, has long registered contaminated surface water.
The Abercrombie Point Pulp and Paper mill, bordered on three sides by Pictou Harbour, has long registered contaminated surface water.

K'JIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) – Under an Access to Information request, the Halifax Media Co-op has obtained several monitoring reports of the Abercrombie Point Pulp and Paper Mill, located in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. Infamously, since 1967, the mill has been dumping raw effluent waste into once idyllic Boat Harbour, which is now known in industrial lingo as the Boat Harbour Effluent Treatment Facility.

Contamination of the mill site itself, however, should be of great importance for those concerned about the potential pollution of Pictou Harbour and indeed the Northumberland Straight. Located on a peninsula, for decades the mill has not only handled, utilized and processed a number of heavy metals and chemicals in the pulping process, but has also operated its own on-site landfill system.

There are currently three landfills on the Abercrombie peninsula site, only one of which is noted as being operational.

A 'Baseline Water Quality Report' dated December 8th, 1989, written by Porter Dillon, suggests that monitoring of the Abercrombie Point mill site, and specifically the landfills, began in 1979 with the drilling of six wells, numbered Wells #1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 8.

Two surface water collection points, 'Sites #6 and 7', were also used to collect data on surface water as it left the mill site to an easterly direction, entered Begg Brook, which drains into the Middle River, and then found its way into Pictou Harbour.

In anticipation of a proposed extension of the landfill system, in 1989 Porter Dillon installed a more rigorous baseline monitoring system, which included the installation of 25 monitoring wells at ten sites around the existing landfills.

However, for the decade of 1979-1989, it does not appear that there was much in the way of data to be able to interpret. The report recommends that five of the six original monitoring wells, numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8, either be abandoned or did not provide representative results due to positioning.

The report reads as follows:

[W]ells [#1,2 and 4], in their present condition, fail to provide representative groundwater quality data, but rather provide a possible conduit for the entry of contamination into the groundwater regime. In this regard, it is also recommended that although Well #3 is presently in reasonably good condition, the age and construction of this well, warrant its abandonment...

The Slasher Deck Well #8 has revealed an inferior water quality with excessive chlorides indicating contamination from salt water intrusion or formation salt. These results are therefore not considered as representative of local groundwater conditions, and it is therefore recommended that sampling of this well, as part of the monitoring program, be discontinued.”

What this suggests is that on-site monitoring of the Abercrombie mill site, between 1967 and 1979, was either non-existent or currently unknown. Monitoring between 1979 and 1989, upon review in 1989 by Porter Dillon, was found to be seriously compromised, with four of six wells not providing representative groundwater quality data.

Flash forward to the '2009 Annual Monitoring Report' submitted by Dillon Consulting Ltd.

Now with numerous groundwater, surface water and leachate testing sites to sample from, the number of exceedances of both the Canadian Environmental Quality Guidelines for Freshwater Aquatic Life (FWAL) and Canadian Drinking Water Quality Guidelines (CDWQ) occurring at the Abercrombie site between 1989 and 2009, are staggering.

For example:

Surface water gathering station 2 exceeded:

  • pH in December 1994.

  • Cadmium guidelines in June and October of 2006, April 2007 and May 2008.

  • Chromium in October 2005.

  • Copper guidelines in December 1997, June 2000, June and December 2004, June and October 2006.

  • Lead guidelines in March and October 1994, December 2004, June and October 2006.

  • Mercury guidelines in March 1995.

  • Selenium guidelines in July 2001, June 2004

  • Total Suspended Solids, December 1994

  • Zinc guidelines in May 1997, July 2001

Surface water gathering station 4 exceeded:

  • pH in June 2006, April 2007

  • Arsenic four times since 1993 and once in 2009

  • Cadmium six times since 1993 and once in 2009

  • Copper six times since 1996

  • Lead six times since 1993

  • Mercury four times since 1993

Surface water gathering station 5, located at the mouth of Begg Brook, which drains into the Middle River of Pictou Harbour, exceeded:

  • pH – eight times since 1994

  • Ammonia twice since 2004 and twice in 2009

  • Arsenic eighteen times since 1993 and four times in 2009

  • Cadmium seventeen times since 1997

  • Chromium sixteen times since 1997 and four times in 2009

  • Copper seventeen times since 1996 and three times in 2009

  • Lead six times since 1994 and once in 2009

  • Mercury four times since 1994 and once in 2009 at over ten times the recommended guidelines.

  • Zinc fourteen times since 1994

Surface water gathering station 6, located at the mouth of Begg Brook as it enters the Middle River of Pictou Harbour, exceeded:

  • Arsenic in July of 1993

  • Cadmium fifteen times since 1996 and three times in 2009

  • Chromium four times since 1993 and once in 2009

  • Copper sixteen times since 1993

  • Lead eleven times since 1993 and once in 2009

  • Mercury seven times since 1994

Surface water gathering station 12, representing discharge from Landfill 2 and possibly some surface drainage from around the Mill stockpile drainage area, exceeded:

  • Arsenic nine times since 1999 and once in 2009

  • Cadmium ten times since 1999 and once in 2009

  • Copper eleven times since 1999 and once in 2009

  • Mercury four times since 1999 and once in 2009

  • Selenium five times since 1999

The implications of serious and lengthy on-site surface water contamination are also more wide reaching than the health of the immediate environs. The peninsular location of the Abercrombie mill site provides a sadly perfect means of flushing away contaminated surface water into  the surrounding Pictou Harbour and its tributaries.

As the 2009 report notes:

On-site surface water at the Abercrombie mill site that is not collected as leachate, flows to drainage ditches and/or streams, then either discharges into Begg Brook (with eventual discharge into the Middle River of Pictou Harbour), directly into the Middle River of Pictou Harbour, or directly into Pictou Harbour.”

The 2009 report does not suggest actual amounts of surface water and/or leachate that escapes the site's leachate collection system – essentially a system of collection pipes and manholes meant to capture waste water and transport it to Boat Harbour. The report does, however, provide for a number of scenarios by which surface water might circumvent the leachate collection system and make its way into Pictou Harbour.

Indeed, the positioning of the surface water collection stations at areas where surface water might escape into Pictou Harbour, or a variety of tributaries, suggests that run-off into Pictou Harbour is an accepted end-result.

Please consult the attached map of the Abercrombie Mill site for positioning of surface water collection stations and landfills.

For example:

Overall drainage from the north section of Landfill 1 and from the Mill stockpile area flows to a ditch along the northeast edge of the landfill. This drainage ditch converges with the road ditch, which flows along the east side of Highway 106, and then discharges into Pictou Harbour...”

And:

Overland drainage from Landfill 2 also enters perimeter ditches. Flow from the southern section of the landfill is directed to a small sedimentation pond...Overflow from the sedimentation pond enters the Begg Brook tributary south of this landfill [which feeds into the Middle River of Pictou Harbour].”

And:

Flow from the northern section of Landfill 2, combined with flow from site ditching near the Mill stockpile area, discharges into a second sedimentation pond northwest of the landfill. Flows continues west and discharges into a pond adjacent to and east of Highway 106. Pond overflow discharges, via a culvert under the highway, into Middle River of Pictou Harbour.”

As for the leachate collection system itself, it does not appear that 2009 was a propitious year. The report notes that:

During 2009, there were two recorded incidents with the leachate collection system. During the October event, it was noted that there was very low to no flow from the pipe within the manhole. At the same time, site personnel were aware of a plugged line and had ordered a high pressure cleaning truck to assist with the issue. During the December event, leachate was observed overflowing into a nearby drainage ditch. Site personnel confirmed that the bypass of the leachate collection system was due to a pump malfunction. Shortly thereafter, a dam was built along the drainage ditch to divert flow to their on-site sewage system until the pump could be brought back online.

Concentrations of major cations and anions, specific conductance, ammonia and several metals (including arsenic, copper, chromium, and occasionally nickel, vanadium, lead, cadmium, zinc and mercury) have been elevated in samples collected since the initiation of monitoring...During 2009, some parameters...appeared to be generally increasing.”


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