Editorial #20 – Then and now in Pictou County

Toxic Lagoon
In 1967, when the pulp and paper mill at Abercrombie Point in Pictou County opened, it was hailed as a major victory for the community.

It created 300 permanent jobs that would stimulate the local economy and would increase forestry activities in northern Nova Scotia at the same time.

It did come with one catch, however, that was hidden from the residents of the county and the Mi’kmaq reservation on whose land the effluent would be treated. The effluent from the milling process, completely untreated, would be dumped into a local tidal lagoon.

The lagoon, known as Boat Harbour, would need to be dammed off to allow the toxic sludge to settle out.

Forty years later, although the treatment process has now been improved, area residents are still suffering from the effects of layer upon layer of settled pollution in their backyards – a body of water that was once prime grounds for swimming, fishing, and shellfish harvesting.In fact, during a recent excursion through the area, my family and I came upon the ruins of a house built by my earliest ancestor to settle in Nova Scotia from Scotland; its stone foundation lay just a few metres from the shore of the once-beautiful lagoon.

Now, with the treatment process somewhat cleaner, the problem is what to do with the estimated 70,000 cubic metres of the worst kind of hell lining the bottom of the lagoon as a result of 50 years of abuse.

The sludge includes heavy metals like cadmium and mercury, and chemical pollutants known as dioxins and furans. Dioxins are linked to damage in nervous tissue, the immune system, and to thyroid disorders.

No wonder, then, that a recent request for a health study, signed by local residents and Mi’kmaq band members has been ignored by provincial and federal authorities.

The solution to the problem of disposal is, as expected, not simple. The contents of the lagoon, if it were released to the tide would be disastrous to the rest of the shoreline.

Dredging up the waste, another possibility under consideration, would cost between seven and twelve million dollars, which is almost as much as the provincial government recently loaned the mill to keep it running.

No one knows what to do with this all-too-familiar example of 1960s industrial shortsightedness.

Korean for “Great Universe,” Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering is a South Korean company that builds heavy machinery such as offshore drilling platforms for oil and gas, oil tankers, planes, and, soon, wind turbines.

The company is in talks now with the provincial government to reopen the recently closed TrentonWorks rail car factory, which at the time of its closing employed 1,200 workers. TrentonWorks is a five-minute drive from Boat Harbour.

The plant will be converted to produce wind turbines, oil and gas wells, and possibly in-stream tidal power generators as well. This will make Trenton the only town in North America to manufacture wind turbines.

This new factory is a chance for Nova Scotia to improve upon its severely tarnished image; that of a province that casts aside environmental considerations in favour of profit, and leaves the mess for future generations. For proof, go for a swim in the Sydney Tar Ponds, Halifax Harbour, or, of course, Boat Harbour.

When the facility is refitted for its new purpose – however “green” that purpose may be – Nova Scotians must insist on clean waste disposal and emissions control.

As we learned from Boat Harbour, just because a development brings jobs to town does not mean it will benefit the community in the long run.

Editorial #15 – Biomass harvesting can have (bio)massive consequences

Green energy is swell. These days, not only are new technologies emerging to cut down our use of fossil fuels, preserving their supply and avoiding their emissions, but also public pressure is being exerted at unprecedented levels for provincial and federal governments to adopt these new fuels to replace their prehistoric counterparts.

In Nova Scotia, paradoxically, this government intervention might be detrimental to our environment; specifically, our forest ecosystems.The provincial government has committed to having twenty per cent of our energy come from renewable sources by 2013. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, included in the list of energy sources considered “renewable” is biomass.

Biomass energy is usually generated by burning waste products from agriculture or forestry – things like tree bark, wood knots, leaves, and stalks and stems from grains. This organic matter is burned, like other fuels, to drive a steam turbine, which generates power. The process has been around for a long time, and can be done very efficiently, cleanly and inexpensively. In fact, most pulp and paper mills already use it to some extent to minimize costs by generating at least some of their own power.

Now, however, with the new provincial energy regulations, there is more demand for biomass energy. Therefore in the words of Adam Smith, we’re going to need some supply up in this bitch, and companies are lining up to deliver, increasing production of biomass energy to actually sell it back into the grid where once they only produced enough for themselves.

This may sound great; after all, it’s more non-fossil fuel energy being made available to Nova Scotians, locally produced, and as a result of operations that are already in progress. The drawback lies in that last part: current forest harvesting operations are likely to be ratcheted up, both in extent and in ecological impact.

When a company’s forestry operation is not solely dependent on the cost of the trees that will be harvested for pulp or lumber, the company can access stands of trees, the accessing of which was formerly prohibitively expensive. Now, trees that are harvested during the road-building operation, but that are not of the species being sought, can be used for biomass. This opens up the possibility for clear-cutting essentially every stand of trees in the province.

Even more serious than the issue of access to new plots is the likelihood that trees will be harvested in a less sustainable manner. Currently, when stands of trees are clear-cut, at least some “waste” material (such as tree tops, branches, and stumps) is left behind, as it serves little purpose to the harvesting company.

The waste material does serve an extremely important purpose when left as waste, however. This material is vital in stabilizing soil, and preventing even more erosion than is already caused by clear cuts. It also acts as a sort of fertilizer, allowing for the regeneration of early colonizing species.

If energy can be generated and sold from this waste material, extremely little will be left behind. Cut-blocks look moonscaped enough without the complete degradation of their soil; soil that is deposited in streams, harming stream species and lost to the forest ecosystem.

The movement towards renewable energy is a pivotal moment in our history. For the first time since the invention of the combustion engine, attempts are being made at drastically reducing the use of fossil fuels and adoption of more permanent solutions to our energy needs. This change has to be made responsibly, however, taking into account direct, local, ecological effects, rather than just the broad, global consequences that are equally important but unequally media-friendly.