The Trudeau government has ordered an outside review of the $292-million Boat Harbour cleanup in Nova Scotia — adding another layer of scrutiny to a dredging project already undergoing a federal environmental assessment.
The external technical review launched Nov. 17 will require the Nova Scotia government to justify its decision to store huge amounts of polluted pulp mill sludge inside a waste containment cell at the existing treatment site after the cleanup. The review is expected to take 12 to 14 weeks.
This is the first project in Canada to undergo an external technical review under the newly created Impact Assessment Agency of Canada.
"The agency determined that the project would benefit from this additional review by independent experts due to the complexity of the proposed waste management options for the project," spokesperson Alison Reilander said in a statement to CBC News.
The plan is to dredge, dry and store a million litres of contaminated, watery sludge accumulated over five decades at the bottom of an aeration basin and settling ponds at Boat Harbour. The effluent facility is directly adjacent to the Pictou Landing First Nation, unwilling neighbours since the mid-1960s.
Site to be returned to Pictou Landing band
Ken Swain, who is in charge of the provincial remediation, said he's confident it's the right solution while acknowledging on-site containment falls short of finally eradicating "what many people see as an act of environmental racism."
The 142-hectare site will be returned to the band when the project is completed and Boat Harbour is returned to a tidal estuary later this decade.
"We'll be cleaning up Boat Harbour, but we'll be using the containment cell on site, which presents some impediment to the exercise of Aboriginal rights in that area. So we believe that that's probably the trigger as to the social concern," he said.
"The technical review will look at the robustness of the design for the containment cell, and how we evaluated the alternatives to arrive at that and in putting it as an element of our project."
The province considered moving the impacted sludge elsewhere, he said.
But there is no other containment cell in the province and driving upward of 20,000 tandem truck loads to the nearest facility in Quebec would increase the cost exponentially in trucking and tipping fees.
Asked whether it would add hundreds of millions of dollars, Swain responded, "Yes."
"It was a pretty thorough, exhaustive assessment that went into the alternatives," he said.
Ottawa's $100M commitment
The federal government is contributing $100 million toward the cost of the cleanup — money it committed when it knew the cleanup involved on-site containment.
The Liberal MP for the area, Sean Fraser, said the external review will provide assurances the remediation is technically sound. It will cover everything from how Boat Harbour will be dredged to whether the containment cell can "stand the test of time and avoid seepage," he said.
"On the disposal issue in particular, this is really ensuring that you're building something that's not going to default and end up having the same community deal with the same contaminants," said Fraser.
"This is a pretty serious engineering project."
Pictou Landing's position
Pictou Landing Chief Andrea Paul did not respond to a request for comment.
However, the band's position has been posted on a new project website. In a post, the band said the creation of the effluent treatment facility at Boat Harbour was "a devastating loss," but it is prepared to accept the solution.
"The long-term storage of impacted sediment and material in the existing containment cell may not completely undo this loss, but a clean Boat Harbour will be a positive improvement," the band said.
"The use of the containment cell for the storage of waste dredged from Boat Harbour has been happening since the mid-1990s. The containment cell will be upgraded and improved before its ongoing use during the project. It will be capped and closed at the end of the project."
$20M, 25-year monitoring program
The province plans on spending $20 million over 25 years monitoring and maintaining the containment cell, which will remain a provincial government responsibility.
When the cell is capped, the province estimates about one tanker truck load of water will leach out from the cell.
"It's not a very significant maintenance and monitoring effort, but it will have to be effectively carried out, and will always be the responsibility of the province," Swain said.
Given the dollars involved in the cleanup, the external review is inexpensive.
BGC Engineering has been hired at a cost of $39,000 — paid for by the Impact Assessment Agency.
A decision on the federal environmental assessment is expected by the middle of 2021. If approved, construction would start in 2022 and take between four and seven years.
On Thursday, the province will host a virtual briefing for 200 companies from across North America and Europe about the business opportunities this project presents.
About the Author
Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.
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