NEW GLASGOW, N.S. - Environment Minister Iain Rankin assured Pictou County residents his government is “absolutely committed” to closing down the Boat Harbour wastewater site by 2020.
His promise came the same day Auditor General Michael Pickup revealed the province’s liability for cleaning up Boat Harbour is now $130 million, up from $12 million in 2013, in his environmental performance report released Wednesday.
The Boat Harbour cleanup figure forms more than 60 per cent of the $212 million liability for future contaminated site cleanup costs in the government’s 2017 financial statements. Other major sites include the Sydney Steel Corporation and Tar Ponds.
“It’s very much unknown until you get into the actual cleanup itself,” Rankin said of potential costs.
The 140-hectare Boat Harbour lagoon includes settling ponds, basins and coves that receive millions of litres of toxic wastewater every day from the Northern Pulp Mill at Abercrombie Point. The site is owned by the province.
The water contains mercury, cadmium, zinc and some organic toxins such as dioxins.
“Nova Scotians should look to their representatives, including the public accounts committee, to ask government whether they are completing their promised actions to address known environmental risks,” said Pickup in a release Wednesday.
His report says Boat Harbour’s full cleanup plan is expected to be complete in the next three to four years.
Pickup also noted that costs to clean up contaminated sites can be significant and may take years to finalize, often using assumptions to estimate their total. Such uncertainty can make fiscal planning tricky.
For example, the $130 million estimate for Boat Harbour was reached on March 31, an increase of $42 million on 2016’s estimate.
Such cost estimates depend on the extent of contamination, new cleanup technologies, new environmental sites to include, length of cleanup times, inflation rates, labour costs, and possible unexpected expenses.
“The liability of $12 million in 2013 has increased over 900 per cent to $130 million in 2017. Changes to the liability are typical for cleanup projects like Boat Harbour.
Information about the extent of the contamination and the options for cleanup processes continue to be collected,” said Pickup’s report.
Rankin said that Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal staff would clean up the site when remedial action begins.
“Not to dodge a question, but I am only involved in the approval of those,” said Rankin.
The Boat Harbour saga began in the 1960s, when the province offered Scott Paper, now Northern Pulp, free disposal of liquid waste to entice it to set up shop in Pictou County. A waste pipeline from the mill to the lagoon was then built.
Effluent flows through the pipeline into settling ponds where it sits for about a day, before moving to a larger stabilization basin, where it remains for five days. It is then released into Boat Harbour.
This waste has resulted in contamination of both water and soil in the harbour and some of the surrounding area, next to the Pictou Landing First Nation Community, according to Pickup’s report.
In June 2014 an agreement in principle was struck between the government and Pictou Landing First Nation to close the wastewater treatment plant and clean up Boat Harbour.
“Our environmental assessment is pretty thorough,” said Rankin.
Report grades province for climate change, environmental assessments
Pickup’s report also said that the province must update its plan for mitigating and adapting to climate change, having previously assessed the risks in 2005.
Nova Scotia’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 were 18 per cent below 1990 levels, exceeding the minimum 10 per cent reduction target set for 2020.
Most of targets in the government's 2009 action plan were completed by 2015 but Pickup said the government should show Nova Scotians what it aims to do now.
“Climate change is expected to continue to affect Nova Scotia and government should be assessing the risks and making plans to deal with them,” said Pickup.
While some progress has been made on climate change, Pickup gave the province a failing grade for environmental assessments when approving new projects.
From 2013 to 2016, the department approved 53 of 54 projects presented for environmental assessment. For the 22 projects examined by the auditor general's office, approvals met legislative requirements and included 675 terms and conditions to be met by project owners.
For 23 of 53 terms and conditions tested by the auditor general, the government did not monitor whether the terms and conditions were met. Some conditions attached to the approvals lacked important details, such as deadlines for completion and reporting requirements.
“The department is failing in this aspect of its environmental oversight because, in too many cases, terms and conditions on project approvals are not monitored or evaluated to see if they are working,” said Pickup.
Regarding three previous environmental audits within the last decade, a total of 20/43 recommendations were not complete.