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Coming the other direction, on the big highway, as you come down into the bowl of Pictou County, you can already see the plume.

It’s domed hardwood hills on both sides of the road, grey sticks now with the leaves gone, like loaves of rising bread. Scattered softwood, mostly fat sawlogs on double-trailer log haulers. Scattered clearcuts corner into the highway. There are hints of the economic value of the paper industry salted all around you, if you care to look.

But that’s not the only thing that’s all around you.

The Abercrombie Point pulp mill near Pictou might be on Nova Scotia’s Sunshine Coast road, but the pall from the mill is hanging over the town in a stinking, sulphurous cloud. You can see it, smell it, and it burns your eyes, your throat. In the fog, it’s choking.

The sign outside the mill’s wood delivery entrance is far more positive: “Welcome to our mill. ‘Our future is not a Gift, it’s an Achievement.’”

At the main entrance, another sign reads, “Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Corporation — A Paper Excellence Company.”

Paper Excellence is actually the name of the holding company that owns the mill. The yard is strewn with fibre — the road in, just like Port Hawkesbury, is battered and patched, and the electrical system running into the plant clearly has more than a few years on it.

“Paper Excellence” doesn’t mean air quality excellence. It doesn’t even mean air quality acceptability; the plant has regularly overshot air contamination standards.

The provincial government has loaned the company $12 million to fix the problem, but has also dragged its feet — the government is well within its rights to charge the company for violating air quality standards, but has instead let the company chug along while it waits for new equipment to reduce emissions, equipment that’s not expected until May.

The mill’s owners argue that they have to keep operating until then to maintain cash flows.

In older times, people would plug their noses and say the smell from pulp and paper mills was “the smell of money.” Mills were large employers with stable, well-paid workforces. That’s changed. As one retail clerk in Pictou told me, “For a lot of businesses here, it’s the smell of money running away.”

(Of course, the smell in the air is only part of the problem — the mill has dumped effluent for decades into a settling-pond system at Boat Harbour, one where, in 1995, the provincial government agreed to accept the environmental liability for cleanup costs. According to the CBC, the mill has received $111 million in financial assistance from the province since 2009. Oh, and $28 million not that long ago from the feds.)

The Highlander Pub is empty, except for two servers and two people on the VLTs. Outside, the smell of the mill comes with its own late night fog. It’s a smell that threads its way inside, through doors, acrid. Upstairs in a room at Doolan’s Guest Homes, it manages to finger its way around the door to the deck. It’s not there all the time — it depends on wind direction — but when it is, it’s like breathing heartburn. There are concerns that it’s a health risk: cancer rates here are high.

But change is slow.

Whether it’s cash handouts, interest-free loans, more Crown land access, free environmental passes or new deals with workers, the battle to the bottom is continuing across the industry and the region.

Mills have closed in Stephenville and Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L., in Brooklyn, N.S. and Miramichi, N.B. Often, those closures have come despite labour concessions and promises of government investment.

The question is, while mill gets played off against mill, province against province, how low are we willing to go?

 

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic Regional columnist. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@tc.tc; his column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and

Saturdays in TC Media’s daily papers.

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