Faulty moisture switch responsible for dense fumes, plume
On June 12, Mary Gorman of Merigomish was driving across the Pictou causeway, a journey she’s made numerous times. As she was driving however, visibility and air quality became progressively and alarmingly worse.
“I almost had an accident because the fumes from the mill were so bad, I started coughing and the plumes were so thick, visibility was significantly reduced,” recalled Gorman. After a few inquiries, she learned from a worker who preferred not to be named that there had been a vent gas system breakdown that day.
“It’s an indisputable fact that something went wrong there that day.”
Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Corp. has confirmed there was a problem on June 12. According to Richard Carter, Northern Pulp’s human resources manager, there was a problem with one of the operating systems at the plant. “We were able to isolate the problem, however, some gases were vented out through the top of the plant.”
Carter said a faulty moisture switch was to blame. “Basically, when a switch fails, it diverts gases going to the boiler through an emergency vent to prevent damage.” The switch has since been replaced with an upgraded model. He noted the problem was rectified on June 14 and Department of Environment contacted on June 17.
“When events like this happen it’s important to follow protocol and protocol was followed,” Carter emphasized.
With the department and compliance division that regulates and monitors emission and pollution levels now informed, they’ve deemed it necessary to investigate. Bruce Nunn, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment, said due process is underway. “Our inspector has gone in to see if there is anything to it and to make sure they’re complying with the rules in place.”
It is unknown when the inspector’s investigation will wrap up. “An inspection can be half a day long or several days. They may need to do interviews as well,” Nunn noted.
Nunn said afterward that with the ongoing inspection the company appeared to be in compliance with conditions of its environmental approval.
Though Northern Pulp was surprised and received no indication that an inspector has been sent, Carter emphasized that the health and safety of those inside and outside the plant was assured. “These vents are high above the plant and tend to dissipate before hitting the ground,” he said. “It’s unlikely there would be any negative health effects unless you had direct contact,” said Carter.
According to Carter, the types of gases released were non-condensable, usually referred to as total reduced sulfur compounds or TRS. Environment Canada states that TRS is often associated with rotten egg, or cooked cabbage odour.
For Gorman, the issue is still unresolved.
“The bigger picture here is how Northern Pulp didn’t act in the public’s interest and rather, acted with impunity,” she said. “This company owes us more respect than not even informing us there was a breakdown.”
Gorman noted that she’s not against Northern Pulp jobs or employees. “It’s the government’s job to set and enforce the rules and, unfortunately, they real pushovers. They roll over again and again.”
A Pictou County businessman is critical of the Dexter government for helping a much larger company expand at the expense of his operation.
Robert Langille, president of E&R Langille Contracting Ltd. of New Glasgow, says direct involvement by government in helping Northern Pulp finance a wood-chipping plant at its Abercrombie Point facility will force his small company to shutter its $5-million wood-chip investment on Mount William, putting about 18 employees out of work.
“Somebody made a bad decision there,” Langille told me Friday, adding that he will soon meet with Northern Pulp to discuss what the changes will mean.
An independent forestry contractor currently providing about 30 per cent of the wood chips used by Northern Pulp, Langille says the government’s decision to help the pulp mill build its own plant is doubly hurtful since his application for a business loan from government was rejected a few years ago.
Ironically, Langille says, his application was rejected on the grounds it would have created an unfair advantage over other suppliers.
When the Northern Pulp funding announcement was made last week, the NDP government boasted that Northern’s new chip plant would create 20 permanent full-time positions and save Northern about $8 million annually.
Langille says he and his father, Ed, started the forestry company a number of years ago, and today it employs about 90 workers, including his brothers, Darren and Craig.
In addition to the Mount William operation, it is involved in wood harvesting, trucking, road building and operating another wood chip operation in Aulds Cove, which Langille says will be dedicated to supplying fuel for the new biomass power plant at the Port Hawkesbury Paper mill in nearby Point Tupper.
There is no way of substituting chips from the Mount William operation for those slated for the biomass plant, he says. There is different equipment and a different process involved in making the biomass fuel.
On the other hand, the Northern Pulp operation is an important economic engine for northern Nova Scotia, employing about 250 people. The company has also benefited from plenty of taxpayer support.
In addition to providing loans for the wood chipper, which reportedly has been on site at Northern Pulp since last fall, the provincial government also provided a $3.6-million loan and a $900,000 grant to fund the conversion of Northern’s boilers and lime kiln to run on natural gas.
The conversion is expected to save the pulp plant about $8 million in annual energy costs. The province is also helping Heritage Gas extend its pipeline to reach the Northern Pulp plant.
At the same announcement last week, the government revealed that it is loaning Northern Pulp $12 million — $2.5 million in the form of a forgivable loan — for the installation of new pollution abatement equipment in the pulp company’s 40-year-old smokestacks.
In total, the province has reportedly loaned Northern Pulp $107 million since 2009. The federal government also provided $28.1 million in grants through the Green Transformation Fund in 2011-12 to assist the company in becoming more environmentally friendly.
Nevertheless, small Nova Scotia companies feel they are being hurt by the government’s direct financial involvement.
Just last month, another supplier to Northern, Hodgson’s Chipping Ltd., a family-run business based in Truro, shut down and put about 70 full-time employees out of work.
Hodgson’s blamed the shutdown on the NDP government’s decision to reduce clearcutting by 50 per cent over five years. Select cutting is more costly for the forestry contractor, but the price paid by Northern Pulp has stayed the same.
The loss of the Hodgson’s supply left Langille as the last Nova Scotia independent wood chip supplier to serve Northern Pulp.
Nagzie Harb compares it to someone spitting in his sap.
Harb woke on the morning of March 27 to freshly fallen snow on his property, but as he looked closer, he saw something else on top of the new snow.
“It looked like little, un-burnt embers.”
Harb owns 45 acres of land he uses for maple syrup production, growing his own food and raising chickens. His land in Abercrombie is only a few kilometres from the Northern Pulp mill.
Harb said the black specks littered his property and fell into the buckets he uses to collect sap from his maple trees that morning.
It didn’t take him long to realize where the black specks were coming from.
“I’m aware of which way the smoke is going.”
Harb said he knew the emissions from the pulp mill had been blowing in his direction the night before. He was worried about what the black specks were and how they might affect his sap.
“Let’s put it this way, I don’t put anything on my ground that I’m not sure of.”
Harb immediately called the Environmental Monitoring and Compliance Department of Nova Scotia. They told him he’d have to call the mill with his concerns.
Mark Theriault, an inspector with Nova Scotia Environment, said it’s the responsibility of Northern Pulp to respond to concerns about their emissions, not the government’s.
“They have third-party consultants hired by Northern Pulp to do testing.”
Theriault said if the mill isn’t complying with environmental standards, the department can issue warnings, tickets, or directives to the company.
Northern Pulp has been issued two directives in the last year.
The mill was directed to reinstate the power boiler scrubber by November 2012, which its website states is working.
Harb contacted the mill after the Environment Department suggested he do so. He was put in touch with Dave Davis, who came down to his property and took samples of the black specks.
But Harb wasn’t satisfied with the response from Northern Pulp.
“He (Davis) was kind of patronizing. He said farmers use it in their fields.”
Harb’s response – “Well I don’t want it in my sap.”
Harb said he waited for results from the tests Northern Pulp conducted, but received nothing initially, not even an apology.
“If Northern Pulp had apologized I would have let it go, but they shook it off.”
Harb said he feels isolated because neither the Environment Department nor the pulp mill responded to his concerns right away.
Environment Minister Sterling Belliveau said he appreciates and understands Harb’s concerns.
He said he’s issued a directive to Northern Pulp to reduce their emissions.
This mill is required to complete a study on its emissions due Sept. 30 of this year.
Belliveau said he wants to reassure people the government is being proactive with Northern Pulp.
“There’s a process in place to protect residents. Our door is always open and we’re willing to work with people.”
The News contacted Northern Pulp about the incident Wednesday afternoon, leaving a message.
Harb called The News Thursday morning to report Northern Pulp had finally responded to his concerns.
“They said it was just charred wood, with no chemicals in it.”
Harb said he isn’t overly concerned with the fallout, but upset with the process.
“I don’t believe in coincidences. I probably wouldn’t have heard from them if you hadn’t called,” Harb said this morning, referring to the call placed by The News Wednesday.
Jack Kyte, acting spokesperson for Northern Pulp, said the mill had no reason not to get back to Harb. He confirmed the fallout came from the mill’s power boiler.
“The particulate is similar to burning wood in a fireplace, it’s not associated with a chemical process.”
Kyte said it takes time to get results back and it was coincidental their response to Harb came the day after Harb contacted The News.
Kyte said mill staff were surprised the incident occurred, explaining fallout hasn’t been a problem because they have a scrubber installed on the boiler.
He says anyone who sees particulate should contact the mill so Northern Pulp can respond to issues as they arise.
Harb worries about the future of his land. He has free-range hens that might ingest the specks. He also plans to have goats free range on his land.
Harb isn’t sure how often the fallout lands on his property. When Dave Davis called him to apologize Thursday, he compared the fallout to a flat tire, something that happens now and then.
Harb is worried he only noticed the fallout during the winter with fresh snow and wonders how often it falls on his property without him noticing.
He says he’d like to see the money the government puts into the mill make tangible improvements to what the mill emits.
“I’ve lived here 40 years and there’s no difference. I haven’t seen it. You can still smell the mill for all the money they put into it.”
Harb said he’ll take matters into his own hands to monitor the mill. He plans on laying a white sheet over a box on part of his land to see what lands on it.
Three capital projects in the works for Northern Pulp Nova Scotia are expected to save the NBSK mill about $16 million per year. The projects include the conversion of two boilers and a lime kiln to burn natural gas, and the construction of an on-site chipping facility.
The Nova Scotia government announced in early April more than $20 million in loans to the pulp mill, to help fund these projects. In addition, the provincial government is contributing $2.5 million to assist Heritage Gas to extend its pipeline to Pictou County, N.S., where Northern Pulp is located.
“Today's announcement helps Northern Pulp deliver on our goal to build a clean, modern and competitive forest company,” said Don Breen, acting general manager, Northern Pulp. “We live in Pictou County near the mill with our families and friends, and are fully committed to doing a better job of reducing air emissions and improving environmental and operational performance to help us export value-added Nova Scotia forest products to the world."
The pulp mill’s commitment to be the first, anchor customer for the natural gas service was crucial to Heritage Gas’ $15.3-million project. The province will lend Northern Pulp $3.6 million and provide a capital equipment incentive of $900,000 to help it convert equipment to natural gas.
In addition, the province is providing $5.2 million, combined with $5 million from the company, to build an on-site chipping facility, the Chronicle Heraldreported on April 5.
“This will allow us to reduce waste significantly by using a lot more of the trees,” Don Breen, general manager, told the Chronicle Herald. The chips will be used to make kraft pulp.
According to the newspaper, the chipping facility will create 20 full-time permanent positions and Breen estimates it will save the company $8 million annually. The conversion to natural gas is expected to save the mill $8 million annually in energy costs, Breen said.
- Chronicle Herald also reported that the province is loaning the company $12 million to install equipment that is projected to remove 80% of the particulate matter in the mill’s air emissions. A portion of the loan, $2.5 million, is forgivable, provided certain employment targets are met.
Breen told the Chronicle Herald the equipment upgrades will help the mill to be more competitive. “We sell all of our product and we are competitive now, before the additions. What’s fighting against us is the high Canadian dollar and that the pulp price is depressed. However, with the $16 million in savings from these projects, we will be much more competitive.”
The first phase of the pipeline project, to begin this spring, is to build a steel pipeline to Northern Pulp, on Abercrombie Point. That is expected to be finished by Dec. 1, with an extension to the nearby towns of New Glasgow and Stellarton planned for 2014.
Businesses and families could soon have access to natural gas in Pictou County, making the area a better place to do business and more affordable to live and raise families.
"Our businesses, families, and others in the community understand the benefits of natural gas, and the province is pleased to work with Heritage Gas to deliver it," said Energy Minister Charlie Parker. "It will save millions of dollars in energy costs for large industrial employers, with savings around the corner for small businesses, hospitals, schools and family homes."
Heritage Gas is investing $15.3 million to extend its pipeline to Pictou County.
"We are proud to make this substantial investment in getting natural gas to Pictou County," said Jim Bracken, president of Heritage Gas. "Energy is a significant cost for industrial and commercial enterprises, so we are proud that we can help companies strengthen their competitiveness and position in the community. Northern Pulp's commitment as our first anchor customer was critical to making this project work.
"This is the first phase of the project and we look forward to working with the community to begin assessing feasibility of further expansion in 2014 and beyond."
The province is contributing $2.5 million to help with start up, which will be refunded as more businesses join.
"The chamber of commerce is truly excited and encouraged that natural gas will be coming to Pictou County," said Dave Freckelton, past-president, Pictou County Chamber of Commerce. "As we continue to plan for the economic future of this region, it is imperative we have energy sources that are cost effective and environmentally friendly. The announcement made today is a significant step in working towards an alternative for our members to consider."
As Heritage Gas builds the pipeline, Northern Pulp will convert its plant to natural gas as part of the company's plan to reduce its energy costs and improve air quality and environmental performance. The province will lend Northern Pulp $3.6 million and provide a capital equipment incentive of $900,000 to help it convert.
"The delivery of natural gas to Pictou County is good for business," said Pat Lee, CEO, Pictou County Health Authority.
"Our business is health care and we are continually seeking efficiencies and ways to save money. Natural gas will give us substantial annual savings, money that can be redirected to patient care."
Heritage Gas is submitting an application to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board to expand into Pictou County. A separate application is being filed to establish a new rate for Northern Pulp.
Heritage Gas and Northern Pulp can terminate the agreement if the approvals are not granted
The first phase, to begin this spring, is to build a steel pipeline to Northern Pulp, on Abercrombie Point. That is expected to be finished by Dec. 1, with an extension to New Glasgow and Stellarton planned for 2014.
Natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, emitting 45 to 80 per cent less carbon dioxide than coal, and two-thirds that of oil, with negligible sulfur dioxides.
"Natural gas is an important part of the province's plan to move toward cleaner and more renewable energy sources, leading to lower, fairer electricity prices for Nova Scotians over the long term," said Mr. Parker.
For the second time in a year, Nova Scotia's Northern Pulp has been ordered to stop a high amount of air pollution being emitted from the paper mill, Inspectors said sulphur emissions have exceeded allowable levels.
Over the fall and winter, Northern Pulp tested emissions coming from its plant. The findings were recently passed on to the Nova Scotia Department of Environment. “Their levels for particulate and total reduced sulphur were in excess of the limits specified in their approval,” said regional director Jay Brenton.
On March 8, the department ordered the company to fix the air pollution. “The directive requires the company to take an engineering study of their recovery boiler system and to choose an option to address the exceedances,” said Brenton.
In April 2011, the department ordered the mill to install air pollution equipment, six years after a scrubber ceased to function. All of this comes after the federal government gave the mill $28 million to improve its environmental performance.
The company claims its reduced odour compounds by 70 per cent. Jane Thomson, a vocal critic, doesn’t buy it “Local residents were being bombarded constantly by this incredible stench,” she said.
The province said company consultants will begin work on April 1. It has until the end of September to comply with the directive.
Northern Pulp Nova Scotia is creating a new Forest Research Program in the province. Northern Pulp's initiative and $1 million investment over five years will drive research to study the impacts of current forest management practices and help shape and improve forest management strategies in the future.
"As one of Nova Scotia's largest forest products companies, the health and sustainability of the forest ecosystem is extremely important," said Michael McLarty, timberlands manager at Northern Pulp Nova Scotia. "We believe the best way to maintain a healthy forest and ecosystem, while producing forest products to meet society's needs in a safe and economical manner, is to continually gain more knowledge and understanding of the impacts of applied forest management strategies."
The Forest Research Program will be chaired by Dr. Peter Duinker, director and professor, School for Resource and Environmental Studies and associate dean research with Dalhousie University's Faculty of Management.
"I am deeply impressed that a Nova Scotia forest-products company would make such a huge commitment to improving forest-management knowledge through research", said Dr. Duinker. "There is strong potential to match the company's research funds with money from Canada's granting councils, so we are anticipating a vigorous research program on sustainable forest management."
Over the next several months, Dr. Duinker, along with Northern Pulp, will invite members of industry, academia and other stakeholder areas, including government, to join the Forest Research Program Advisory Committee. The next step will be a needs assessment to ensure the research conducted delivers relevant, meaningful and defensible results while maximizing resources.
"For more than 40 years, our team at Northern Pulp has successfully used existing science in managing Nova Scotia forests," said Wayne Gosse, CEO and CFO for Northern Pulp. "We have learned over this time that society's needs and our natural systems are ever-evolving and there is a need for up-to-date in-depth forest research like this Forest Research Program."
Northern Pulp also recently announced its participation in a working demonstration forest. The forest, in the Mooseland area at Otter Ponds in the Halifax region, will promote the philosophy, science, and practice of uneven-aged forest management in the Acadian Forest. It was established by the province, Northern Pulp, and the Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners and Operators Association, with help from community and environmental groups.
A new division under the woodlot owners and operators association, the Otter Ponds demonstration forest division, will manage the initiative. The demonstration site will be managed and operated as a working woodlot, producing timber for processing and maintaining a sustainable ecosystem.
This project will test resource management options, and build on best practices. The working forest will also allow for field testing silviculture techniques and restoration practices.
"With time, the Otter Ponds forest will become an 'open air' classroom for anyone interested in learning and sharing ideas about forestry and ecology, on-the-ground and in the woods,." said Jamie Simpson, forestry program co-ordinator with the Ecology Action Centre.