An aerial view of the Touquoy open pit gold mine in Moose River shows the massive crater of the open pit, with the tailings pond and waste rocks piles in the distance behind. Photo: SImon Ryder-Burbidge
Touquoy open pit gold mine in Moose River, Nova Scotia. Photo: Simon Ryder-Burbidge

St Barbara Ltd, the Australian company that owns Atlantic Gold / Atlantic Mining NS, which operates the Touquoy open pit gold mine in Moose River and wants to open three more mines on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia, seems to be having a run of extraordinarily good fortune when it comes to decisions by government regulators in this part of the world.

Last week St Barbara CEO Craig Jetson informed investors that the Nova Scotia government had approved an increase in the height of its tailings facility at the Touquoy mine.

This decision worried groups concerned about the expansion of gold mining in the province and government support for the industry, following Jetson’s visit to the province in May, when — as Jennifer Henderson reported here — the St Barbara CEO met with both Premier Tim Houston and Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change Minister Tim Halman.

Halman also told Henderson that his department had recently hired two “business relations officers” to provide companies with “one consistent point of contact.”

Now the federal government has also given St Barbara exactly what it has asked for.

Three more years under old legislation

Yesterday word came from the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC) that it has agreed to written requests from St Barbara’s subsidiary Atlantic Mining NS, which operates in Nova Scotia as Atlantic Gold, for a three-year extension to the August 28, 2022 deadline it had to submit information for two of three more open pit gold mines it has planned in Nova Scotia ⁠— one at Beaver Dam and the other at Fifteen Mile Stream.

That means the federal government has granted the company permission to extend the environmental assessment process for the two proposed open pit gold mines until August 28, 2025.

In what looks like another concession to St Barbara, the Impact Assessment Agency is also allowing the environmental assessments for the two proposed gold mines to continue under out-dated federal legislation, the 2012 Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), passed by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, rather than under the more rigorous 2019 Impact Assessment Act.

According to John Perkins of the group Sustainable Northern Nova Scotia (SuNNS), the 2019 Impact Assessment Act “is a much better assessment process that includes more Indigenous participation and a shift to considering social and economic impacts, not just environmental ones.”

However, yesterday’s decision by the Impact Assessment Agency spares Atlantic Gold the more comprehensive evaluation under the newer Act for its Beaver Dam and Fifteen Mile Stream mines.

In its response to Atlantic Mining NS, the Impact Assessment Agency justified its decision to extend the deadline for the Beaver Dam project environmental assessment (EA) this way:

  • the EA is well advanced and you have responded to two rounds of information requirements (IRs) and are currently working on the third round;
  • the extension will maintain coordination with the province and ensure the processes remain aligned, avoid duplication in consultation, and help manage technical issues with overlapping jurisdiction; and
  • Atlantic Mining NS Inc. (the Proponent) has experienced challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Fifteen Mile Stream, the Impact Assessment Agency did not include the clause on COVID-19, but noted:

  • Atlantic Mining NS Inc. is currently completing studies and updating information to accommodate project changes (adding three new open pits to the mine, for a total of four). 
(emphasis added)

However, the Impact Assessment Agency did stipulate that 2025 is the final deadline for submissions for the two mine projects from Atlantic Mining NS. If all the information and studies for the two mines are not provided by August that year, the company will have to resubmit the project and it will be evaluated under the 2019 Impact Assessment Act.

St Barbara’s love fest with Canadian regulators

Not surprisingly, St Barbara is crowing about this decision to its investors. In a statement today on the “positive outcome” of its permit applications, the company said:

This positive outcome removes the risk to these projects being materially delayed had the permitting process had to restart under the new Impact Assessment Act 2019. IAAC’s determination to remain under CEAA 2012 noted that the Environmental Assessment for both projects are well advanced and meet the criteria for the process.

As a result, Beaver Dam remains on track for first ore to be delivered prior to the completion of stockpile processing at Touquoy in December 2024. A further update on Fifteen Mile Stream will be provided in the second quarter of this financial year.

The statement quoted St Barbara Managing Director and CEO Craig Jetson who is clearly delighted with the compliance of regulators in Ottawa and Nova Scotia, boasting to “the market” that the:

… positive outcome with the Canadian Federal Government builds on the successful permits from the Nova Scotia Government for the clay cut back and tailings lift permit. We now have greater certainty for both projects and this demonstrates that the Federal Canadian Government and Nova Scotian Government permitting processes are robust and functional. This is particularly pleasing given my recent interactions with key stakeholders in Nova Scotia, which has enabled improved co-ordination and communication with both the Nova Scotian Government and the Canadian Federal Government. We will continue to progress the development of Beaver Dam and Fifteen Mile Stream and I look forward to updating the market in the future on these growth projects.

Millbrook First Nation still opposes the project

The St Barbara statement made no mention of First Nation or other public opposition to the mines in Nova Scotia.

Millbrook First Nation has two Reserves near Beaver Dam, and in the past has expressed strong opposition to the gold mine because of concerns that the mine and its infrastructure will result in a loss of fishing and hunting areas, and affect resources they depend on for food security.

Natural Resources Canada map of First Nation reserves in Nova Scotia, showing Millbrook reserve land at Beaver Dam (Beaver Lake Indian Reserve No. 17), Sheet Harbour (Reserve No. 36), Cole Harbour (Reserve No. 30), as well as in Millbrook in and around Truro, NS.

In her June 28, 2022 letter to the Impact Assessment Agency requesting the extension for the environmental assessment for Beaver Dam, Atlantic Mining NS head of permitting Sara Wallace wrote that the company “recognizes” that Millbrook has “specific concerns (e.g. harvesting areas, haul road access, water quality, and human health effects that the community would like to see addressed.”

Related: Millbrook First Nation to Atlantic Gold and government regulators: “We oppose the Beaver Dam mine project”

Related: “We cannot imagine two locations less suited for extractive projects such as gold mining.” The Nova Scotia Salmon Association comes out swinging against Atlantic Gold’s plans for open pit gold mines on crucial river systems on the Eastern Shore.

Wallace also wrote that Atlantic Mining NS will use the additional three years to, among other things, “continue engagement with Indigenous communities.”

A table provided in Wallace’s letter details that “engagement” with Millbrook.

It shows that in May this year, Atlantic Mining NS met with Millbrook First Nation “to sign confidential agreements and received access to sensitive data around traditional land use.”

However, Wallace’s letter also noted that on May 24, 2022, “Millbrook First Nation provided a letter to AMNS [Atlantic Mining NS] to state that the newly formed Millbrook Chief and Council opposes the proposed Project.”

Apparently not very good at taking “no” for an answer, Atlantic Mining NS stated in its request for an extension to the Impact Assessment Agency that it “is committed to reviewing aspects of the Project that may warrant change to such concerns.”

Hauling ore between mines

One of those contentious issues is the hauling of ore between mines.

Atlantic Gold plans to truck the ore it extracts from the three mines it has planned on the Eastern Shore — at Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream, and Cochrane Hill near Sherbrooke — all the way back to its Touquoy mine. There the company plans to do all the gold extraction.

Related: Expansion of gold mining on the Eastern Shore meeting with stiff resistance. The public and Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia have until December 16 to comment on this latest round, but in a letter from June, Millbrook First Nation said they “do not support” the mine on the Eastern Shore.

Related: Atlantic Gold plans to mine “paradise.” Citizens near Beaver Dam and Moose River raise the alarm about the high environmental costs of open pit gold mines in eastern Nova Scotia, the province’s “sacrifice zone.”

In requesting an extension for its environmental assessment submissions, Atlantic Mining NS wrote that it will “assess the need for a potential change in the Project transportation corridor,” a euphemistic way of referring to the controversial and potentially harmful 30-kilometre long “haul road” that it intends to build between the proposed mine site at Beaver Dam and the existing Touquoy mine in Moose River.

The company will not just extract the gold at the Touquoy site; it also plans to store the tailings (the toxic slurry left after gold extraction) from the new mines there, and those tailings will have to be monitored for centuries to come.

A July 2022 report from BC Mining Law Reform and Skeena Wild documented the growing risks of tailings dam failures in the face of climate change, saying:

Tailings, which can include trace heavy metals, selenium, and other toxins such as arsenic and cyanide, are typically stored permanently in aboveground facilities that are retained by dams. If these dams fail, as happened with the Mount Polley mine waste disaster in 2014, large volumes of tailings can be released to the surrounding environment. The potential risks associated with even a single tailings storage facility (TSF) failure are serious, including loss of human life, catastrophic damage to roads and infrastructure, and total losses to ecosystems, including salmon watersheds.

The report noted that as the height and storage capacity of mine tailings dams in BC increase, so do the risks involved.

BC taxpayers paid about $40 million to clean up the 2014 disaster when Imperial Metals’ failed tailings pond at its Mount Polley copper and gold mine released 25 million cubic metres of contaminated mining waste into B.C.’s Fraser River watershed, although that clean up did not involve removing tailings from the floor of Lake Quesnel. The mine is now going back into production. Photo courtesy Cariboo Regional District.
BC taxpayers paid about $40 million to clean up the 2014 disaster when Imperial Metals’ failed tailings pond at its Mount Polley copper and gold mine released 25 million cubic metres of contaminated mining waste into B.C.’s Fraser River watershed, although that clean up did not involve removing tailings from the floor of Lake Quesnel. The mine is now going back into production. Photo courtesy Cariboo Regional District.

But the long-term legacy of the mines and the tailings they produce are not the concern of St Barbara or its Nova Scotia subsidiaries.

The company’s immediate concern was getting provincial approval to increase the height of its tailings facility at Touquoy so it could keep producing gold there, and an extension on the existing environmental assessments for the Beaver Dam and Fifteen Mile Stream mines from the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, ensuring that the environmental assessment processes continue under the older and less comprehensive 2012 Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and not the 2019 Impact Assessment Act.

In the past two weeks, St Barbara has succeeded in getting approval for both of these.

And the company’s next concern, especially as the gold in its Touquoy mine runs out and it needs to promise its shareholders new mine production, is to get government regulators to approve its Beaver Dam mine before the 2025 deadline for its environmental assessment.

The workplan Atlantic Mining NS submitted to the IAAC with its request for an extension to the EA for the Beaver Dam mine.

Given St Barbara’s recent track record getting its way with regulators in Nova Scotia and in Ottawa, where the company has its own lobbyist, the odds — at least at this point — appear stacked in their favour.

‘All Nova Scotians should worry’

The federal decision to grant Atlantic Mining NS an extension comes just a week after the provincial government’s decision to approve the increased height of the tailings facility at the Moose River mine. And that decision came just one week after Nova Scotia Environment Minister Halman approved another gold mine — one with two open pits — on the province’s Eastern Shore.

Related: Nova Scotia Environment minister approved Signal Gold’s open pit mine at Goldboro despite concerns and criticisms from scientists in his own department. This decision also exposes weaknesses in the assessment process for metal mines in Nova Scotia and Canada

The Halifax Examiner asked John Perkins for his thoughts on last week’s provincial government approval of Atlantic Mining NS’s application to modify its tailings facility at Moose River, and what it means for the environmental assessment process for the other mines that the company plans for the Eastern Shore.

Perkins replied that he thinks the decision shows that “the process has completely broken down and been co-opted by corporate interests, and added:

It says to me that this government wants a process that will make Nova Scotia a banana republic and is pursuing 19th century economics in a 21st century world. It says the minister [of Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change] seems to have bought the proponent’s hype of the financial benefits without any due diligence, analysis, or review of evidence to the contrary. He has ignored the cautions and claims of his own scientific staff making mockery of the his government’s claim to follow-the-science. The minister seems to be blind to the impacts of the project on achieving our climate change goals and he seems tone deaf to the people of Nova Scotia who care deeply about wilderness, water and the natural world. All-in-all not a pretty picture.

Since Atlantic Gold began production at its Moose River gold mine in 2017, it has produced many hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold. To date, however, it has not paid the province of Nova Scotia a cent in corporate tax.

In Perkins’ view, “All Nova Scotians should worry” about the way the province has fast-tracked approval for Atlantic Mining NS’s tailings facility changes, which he said is “divorced from the careful consideration of a rigorous environmental assessment.”

Perkins concluded:

The cozy relationship with foreign corporations influencing government policy and decisions paints a grim picture for the evaluation of all projects proposed for Nova Scotia.

Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website: www.joanbaxter.ca;...

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  1. “To date, however, it has not paid the province of Nova Scotia a cent in corporate tax”

    So then, what is the supposed benefit to Nova Scotians, if not tax dollars?

    1. The benefit is “economic activity”. IE, we let them rip us off. In return, some crumbs are scattered around

    2. Employment is a benefit to Nova Scotia.
      If the project is not yet profitable it will not pay corporate taxes….same as any other business.
      How many bars/restaurants have paid corporate taxes in the past 3 years ?

      1. They get away with an awful lot of profit before they pay any taxes. And a lot of those profits have gone to the previous owner that does not pay much tax eith, who SB in their greed paid too much to..

        How many bars and restaurants spew toxins around, and blast open the earth ?

        Bars and restaurants are not things we need to make sure it is worth having around us.

      2. Well, there is this: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/nova-scotia-skilled-trades-shortage-1.6484170

        There are jobs, jobs, jobs, but there are labour shortages for far more important projects than gold mines.

        And the company has (finally) paid corporate taxes to the feds, so an astute reader / citizen – someone who wasn’t stubbornly refusing to see the point of this and many previous Examiner articles on this company and its mines in Nova Scotia – might want to ask his provincial government what kind of deal was struck so that this company can manage to pay no provincial taxes.