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Fishy business?

Access to Information request shows Pictou Harbour effluent spill studies at odds.

by Miles Howe

Sandbags trying to stem the flow of effluent into the East River, June 12th, 2014 [Photo: M.Howe]
Sandbags trying to stem the flow of effluent into the East River, June 12th, 2014 [Photo: M.Howe]

Through an Access to Information request to the Nova Scotia Department of Environment, the Halifax Media Co-op has obtained two studies related to the June 10th, 2014, pipe blowout that resulted in unknown millions of litres of raw effluent spewing into Pictou Harbour, Nova Scotia.

Importantly, the two studies seem to be very much at odds with each other in relation to the initial toxicity of the direct surroundings immediately impacted by the spill.

The one, commissioned by mill owners Northern Pulp and undertaken by Stantec Consulting, found that water samples taken on June 11th from a pond in which effluent was collecting – and overflowing – was 100% lethal to rainbow trout (a standard test under the Federal 'Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations).

A fail.

The other, commissioned by Nova Scotia Environment – the provincial enforcers of said regulations – found that water samples taken on June 11th from “the Point of Release, from effluent overflowing a wetland impacted by the damaged pipeline” was 0% lethal to rainbow trout.

A pass.

Is something fishy going on?

To recap:

On the morning of June 10th, at approximately 7am, mill workers were made aware that there was a possible leak in the 'effluent treatment line' that generally discharges about 70 million litres of raw effluent per day, from the Northern Pulp mill to the Boat Harbour Effluent Treatment Facility. Boat Harbour was once a tidal estuary of vital significance to the Indigenous Mi'kmaw people of Pictou Landing First Nation.

Fifteen minutes later, according to mill staff, the order was given to begin an immediate shutdown process.

The point of the leak was found just before 8am, at the area where the pipe makes landfall near Pictou Landing, after travelling under the East River. Video captured that morning shows a torrent of effluent streaming into the East River, an arm of Pictou Harbour. Northern Pulp staff note that the flow of effluent was completely stopped by 2pm on June 10th.

The direct area of the spill was sandbagged. Vacuum pumper trucks began to remove the spilled waste from a pond directly adjacent to the break in the pipe. Between June 11th and June 21st, 2.2 million litres of liquid was collected form this pond and dumped at Boat Harbour.

The Studies:

Stantec's study

The first study was commissioned by Northern Pulp Nova Scotia – the current owners of the mill – and was undertaken by Stantec Consulting Ltd.

Stantec went about it's study by collecting a sample of raw effluent from the mill on June 10th, in order to characterize its general chemistry. This sample, as well as existing baseline data on the mill's raw effluent - collected from the point of discharge at Boat Harbour between January and May, 2014 - were then compared against surface water sampled from the pond area. Samples were gathered from the impacted pond on June 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17 and 19th.

As one might expect upon releasing millions of litres of raw effluent into it, the pond water samples displayed a massive spike in Total Organic Carbon and Total Suspended Solids, peaking around the 13th to 14th of June

Carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) is another common test used to determine the levels of inorganic and organic materials in a system, this time focusing on the amount of molecular oxygen used to biochemically break down matter. Carbonaceous BOD peaked on June 14th with 160mg/L and settled back to about 15mg/L by June 19th.

Briefly, there was a lot of stuff, both organic and inorganic, that came rushing into the pond – and subsequently into the East River (and then Pictou Harbour, and then the Northumberland Strait...) - that was not very supportive to life in general.

Stantec then ran two toxicity tests that stand as guidelines within the Canadian Federal 'Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations'; the LC50 rainbow trout test and the LC50 Daphnia magna (a water flea) test.

'LC50' refers to the concentration of a sample at which 50% of a test species will die.

A June 10th raw effluent sample from the mill, at 100% concentration, proved to have 100% mortality to rainbow trout. All samples died in under 13 hours. The same sample had only 30% mortality in Daphnia magna.

A June 11th sample from the pond, at 100% concentration, proved also to have a 100% mortality to rainbow trout. In this case, the samples died in under 20 hours; so only a bit better at this point than raw effluent. Curiously, a pond water sample proved to have 70% mortality to Daphnia magna, worse than raw effluent collected on June 10th.

This may possibly be explained by the massive spikes and valleys of a variety of indicators when effluent from the Northern Pulp mill is collected and analyzed over time. One day's effluent is not the same as the next, basically.

For example, in the samples of raw effluent collected at Boat Harbour between January and May, 2014, the lowest pH of a sample collected was 2.46, essentially the equivalent of stomach acid, while the highest pH was 9.63. The maximum measurement of dissolved Sulphate was 1800mg/L, while the minimum was 180mg/L. The sample that Stantec collected on the morning of June 10th was potentially of a different composition than whatever had likely overflowed into the East river from the pond from the night before.

By June 19th, the Stantec study found that the pond water samples were no longer lethal to rainbow trout or Daphnia magna. The poison had been diluted, had been vacuumed up and had potentially seeped into the groundwater.

Towards monitoring the effects of the spill on groundwater, six groundwater monitoring wells were installed by June 26th, 2014. Monitoring of these wells began on June 30th. Data from the monitoring wells was not available as of press time.

Erosion controls to the area, which happens to be adjacent to – some claim on top of – a traditional First Nations burial ground, were also recommended.

Strum's study

The second study was undertaken by Strum Consulting Ltd on behalf of Nova Scotia Environment.

There is confusion from the outset in this study, based in no small part in what must be a continuous 'typo'.

The study notes that Strum personnel collected samples from three different locations; SW1 – Melmerby Beach; SW2 – “from effluent overflowing a wetland impacted by the damaged pipeline”, and; SW3 – the point where the overflowing water had begun to enter the East River.

Twice in this study it notes that the samples were collected on June 4th, six days before the leak.

Strum's grab samples of water collected from the three locations were sent to Maxxam Analytique, a laboratory in Sainte-Foy, Quebec. Maxxam then subcontracted the samples to Aquatox Testing and Consulting Inc in Guelph, Ontario.

The lab results from Aquatox note that the SW1 and SW3 samples have a 100% mortality rate on rainbow trout, which makes sense, given that the rainbow trout sample group would likely have been an exclusively freshwater species and the liquid samples would have been saltwater.

But the SW2 sample notes a 0% mortality.

The SW2 sample also had a 0% mortality for Daphnia magna.

Aside from being at the point where the effluent overflows, this is the exact spot where the Stantec study notes a 100% mortality. On June 11, with a steady overflow occuring, this likely would have been almost exactly the same liquid being gathered. The pond itself was not acutely toxic, as Stantec noted that after June 19th the pond water passed the LC50 tests.

Unless something acutely toxic was stirred up in the pond by the massive inflow of effluent (of a known toxicity according to Stantec), which then settled back down afterwards, there appears to be a discrepancy.

Strum's sampling method is not given. The name of the person doing the sampling is not given. Nor is the time of the sample given.

The sampling date, at this point, has been remedied at the Aquatox laboratory to the 11th of June.

Fishy business?

That Stantec, in a study provided to Northern Pulp, would find that both the mill's raw effluent on June 10th and samples taken from the pond adjacent to the leak on June 11th both failed the LC50 rainbow trout test is troubling enough. Federal regulations note that effluent at 100% concentration is not supposed to fail this test.

Secondly, that this would be released into the environment, and that Stantec would suggest that on June 11th the pond water was about 50% federally failed effluent content, is also disturbing. If only 2.2 million litres of this mixed pond water/effluent liquid was recovered, it suggests that tens of millions of litres of this failed effluent likely entered the larger ecosystem through the East River.

Thirdly, that Strum Consulting, contracted by Nova Scotia Environment, would take a sample from the exact same direct environment – and that this sample would not fail – leaves numerous questions unanswered.

Nova Scotia Environment could not be reached for comment.

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