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Boats are berthed on the marina across the harbour to Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Corp. in Pictou, N.S., on Sept. 10, 2013. A growing number of Pictou residents believe the mill’s odorous emissions are behind the region’s abnormally high cancer rates.Paul Darrow/The Globe and Mail

Smoke from the Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Corp. mill rolls across Pictou Harbour so thick some days, residents say, the scene resembles something out of a horror movie.

"They call it a Stephen King fog," said Matt Gunning, who owns a car dealership near the harbour. "It's a wall of fog that you see coming, but once you're in it, you know this is no fog."

Pictou, a picturesque town on Nova Scotia's north-central coast, has endured a symbiotic-yet-fractious marriage with the hulking mill two kilometres south across the harbour for nearly 50 years. The plant has provided jobs in a region where unemployment hovers higher than national and provincial averages, and donated generously to area health centres, education programs and historic preservation efforts.

But the marriage is on the rocks, fuelled by the conviction of a growing number of residents that the mill's odorous emissions are behind the region's abnormally high cancer rates and that millions of dollars of government largesse to combat the problem have been wasted.

They insist they do not want to shutter the mill, which opened in 1967 and remains one of the region's largest employers. Rather, they say they want assurances that their health is not being compromised and more accountability when the mill fails to live up to standards, as the Nova Scotia Department of Environment deemed was the case twice in the past two years.

The mill, which produces bleached softwood kraft pulp used in toilet paper and newsprint, employs 250 people and pumps millions of dollars into the local economy. In the process, it pumps foul-smelling toxins into the air and industrial waste into a nearby treatment lagoon.

On good days, the scent of sulfur can hardly be detected. On bad days, when the humidity is high or the wind shifts, a stench best described as spoiled eggs and rotten cabbage clings to this harbour town like a dirty shirt.

"You can feel it in your sinuses, your eyes sting, you'll taste it on the tip of your tongue," said Paul Gregory, 42, an environmental consultant. "Growing up here, they always used to say, 'It's the smell of money,' and you just kind of put up with it."

Mr. Gregory and Mr. Gunning are spearheading a push for change. A Facebook group they started over the summer has almost 3,200 members. An online petition they launched urging Premier Darrell Dexter to "clean up" the mill and enact greater oversight has nearly 1,700 signatures. They solicited the help of environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who says on her website that she is researching the matter.

Studies of cancer risks associated with pulp and paper mills have mostly been inconclusive. Some have shown elevated risks of lung cancer, but researchers have noted the difficulty of disentangling those findings from the effects of smoking. While there appear to be no peer-reviewed studies examining cancer risks in the Pictou region, the area's rate of cancer is among the highest in the country.

According to Statistics Canada, the Pictou area has the seventh highest rate of cancer per 100,000 residents of the country's 106 health regions. Most of the regions ahead of Pictou on the list, like Nunavut and northern Quebec, are so vast and sparsely populated that even a single incidence of cancer can skew the data. The area around Saint John, N.B., which also has a pulp mill, is the only region with a sizable population that has higher cancer rates than Pictou.

MLA Charlie Parker, the province's energy and natural resources minister and a representative of Pictou County in the legislature, recalled the love-hate relationship between the mill and his constituents dating back decades. At the same time, he agreed with the perception that air quality has declined in recent years.

"There has been a change for the worse in the air quality," Mr. Parker said, adding later that, "People can breathe [the exhaust], feel it, eat it. It's right there in front of them."

Long-simmering anxieties about cancer in Pictou and lax government oversight were heightened last year, when news surfaced that the mill had been operating for years without a functional wet scrubber – a type of filter – and particulate emissions had been exceeding permit levels.

The Department of Environment could have fined Northern Pulp, but instead issued a directive to repair the filter. The fix was made, according to the department, but in March of this year, it issued a directive to install more filtration equipment and conduct air-quality studies after tests revealed emissions again exceeded acceptable levels.

The province followed that up with a $12-million loan to help the company address the issue.

Mr. Parker, whose office did not finance the aid but has acted as a broker for residents and the mill and the province, justified government loans as a means to ensure improvements are made.

"It's always a delicate balance around here protecting the health of our community, but also protecting the economy," Mr. Parker said, adding that Northern Pulp is "generally speaking … a responsible corporate citizen."

Department of Environment spokeswoman Lori Errington could not immediately provide data on the mill's emissions. She said, though, that while the plant was found to be in violation, its emissions have fallen dramatically since the department set air-quality standards in the mid-2000s.

A few years earlier, Northern Pulp received $28-million from the federal Pulp and Paper Green Transformation Program, a fund to help mills reduce their environmental footprint. The company said the money helped cut odour by 70 per cent. Some residents have scoffed at that claim and called for an audit of the spending.

Don Breen, the mill's general manager, said limiting environmental impact is a priority and that emissions are now in compliance with the company's provincial operating permit.

He added that air quality is better than ever, and that the company is investing tens of millions of dollars of its own money in further reducing emissions, including the installation of a $20-million electrostatic precipitator filter to cut back on so-called "salt cake" particles.

"Our goal is to minimize impact on the environment and the local community and at the same time keep jobs," Mr. Breen said. "But we are a kraft pulp mill. Every kraft pulp mill in the world gives off an odour … We will never be odour free."

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