Boat Harbour wastewater lagoon is Nova Scotia’s largest contaminated site, for which both the levels and severity of contaminants remain uncertain (Gorman, 2018). In 1964 the tidal estuary of Boat Harbour, just east of the Pictou Landing First Nation, began receiving effluent piped from the new pulp and paper mill at Abercrombie Point. Besides the mill's effluent, Boat Harbour also had untreated chemicals poured directly into it by former mill supplier Canso Chemicals. Located in the same area from 1971-1992, Canso produced chlorine, caustic soda, and hydrogen for use at the mill (Dillion Consulting Ltd, 2017; Environment Canada, 2013). Canso was unable to account for annual mercury losses of several tons during the 1970’s, including a peak loss of five tons in 1975. This unresolved loss lead to concerns that mercury was accumulating in Boat Harbour (Canadian Press, 1977).
Boat Harbour Effluent Treatment Facility was constructed in the early 1970s, including a dam in 1972 that cut off Boat Harbour from the ocean, transforming it into a freshwater lake and then wastewater lagoon. Since the treatment system began operation, Boat Harbour has become polluted with dioxins, furans, chloride, mercury and other toxic heavy metals (Council of Canadians, 2011).
Boat Harbour was further contaminated in 2014 when 47 million liters of effluent spilled directly into nearby wetland and then seeped into the East River and Pictou Harbour. The spill prompted renewed interest in the site and resistance from locals, including the Pictou Landing First Nation. Boat Harbour is considered one of Nova Scotia's worst cases of environmental racism (Donovan, 2016).
The Pictou Landing First Nation has expressed concern about Boat Harbour’s impact on the local ecosystem, water quality, livelihood of community members, access to cultural sites and practices, and community health for over four decades. Pictou Landing First Nation first moved to take legal action against the project in 1986, in a suit that took seven years. While the Nation settled with the federal government out of court for $35 million in 1993, the upfront cost of forwarding their case was a great financial burden and capacity drain for the small community. The continued failure to clean up Boat Harbour prompted a lawsuit in 2010 against the province of Nova Scotia, but the community required compensation of legal funds to continue pursuing the case, which rejected by the court (Donovan, 2016; PLFN v. NS, 2014).
The 2014 spill directly impacted the Nation’s burial sites and community members were deeply concerned about their water supply. This event, and the mill’s history of disregard for environment and community, inspired a blockade of the spill site (with the exception of environmental consultants) until officials consulted with the band council about the Mi’kmaq burial grounds nearby. The escalation of the conflict, support from research and advocacy groups, and media scrutiny applied sufficient pressure to pass the Boat Harbour Act in 2015. (Brannen, 2017)
In 2015 the Boat Harbour Act passed, affirming that the current effluent treatment plant must cease no later than January 31, 2020, and that the site must be remediated. The alternate proposal for treating and releasing effluent from the mill into the Northumberland Strait is also facing backlash because of the risk it poses to the coastal ecosystem and local fisheries. Another leak adjacent to Pictou Landing was reported by a community member on October 21, 2018. Clean-up and monitoring have begun again. Recent news suggests that it is unlikely the company will meet the 2020 deadline.