Contaminated tailings at Montague Gold Mines are popular with ATV and motorbike riders. Photo: Joan Baxter

The government of Nova Scotia has a process for identifying potential contaminated sites in the province — 69 of which are abandoned mines — but has no coordinated approach to manage or prioritize their cleanup. That’s one of the troubling conclusions contained in a performance audit released today by acting Auditor General Terry Spicer.

It’s especially troubling given the continued push by gold mining companies to convince the public and government authorities they should be permitted to proceed with further exploration and development.

Related: “Port Wallace Gamble: the real estate boom meets Nova Scotia’s toxic mine legacy

Since March 2019, the province has identified a list of 127 potentially contaminated sites on Crown land. Two of those sites — abandoned gold mines at Montague Mines in Dartmouth and Goldenville, Guysborough County — have been identified as high risk for mercury and arsenic. A year ago, $48 million was set aside to begin their evaluation and cleanup.

“What our concern was (and still is) is the other 67 mine sites which haven’t been fully assessed yet to know which ones are higher risk for contamination and impacting the environment and human health,” Spicer said in an interview. “That work needs to be done. And that’s just on the Lands and Forestry side. The same issue is permeating through the province.”

Nova Scotia’s Acting Auditor General, Terry Spicer. Photo: YouTube/Office of the Auditor General Credit: YouTube/Office of the Auditor General
Nova Scotia’s Acting Auditor General, Terry Spicer. Photo: YouTube/Office of the Auditor General Credit: YouTube/Office of the Auditor General

The acting auditor general (the previous one, Michael Pickup has moved to B.C.) said 69 “historic” mine sites (including coal and gypsum) are now being evaluated by the Department of Lands and Forestry. Spicer said he reviewed the draft documentation which looks at the sites based on their risk to human health and the environment and he is “pleased” the planning work is underway. Only he says it should have happened a lot sooner.

“Lands and Forestry should have taken steps to determine if the mine sites were in compliance with the Contaminated Sites regulations when they were released in 2013,” he said. Six years ago.

Spicer said a program begun in 2010 by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (TIR) to identify potential contaminated sites at highway garages and operational bases was inexplicably stopped. Work is again underway but TIR uses different criteria than Lands and Forestry.

“The lack of a coordinated approach was evident as each department had different processes to identify sites,” said Spicer. “Not all potentially contaminated sites were tracked and historical information was not tracked. At transportation, we found one site had been given a high risk rating for contamination in 2010 but there was no evidence to determine if any cleanup had been completed since that time.” (The Examiner has submitted a request to TIR to identify the site mentioned by the AG).

Update July 29: Yesterday, the acting Auditor General urged the Province to come up with a coordinated plan to assess and prioritize dealing with 127 contaminated sites — 69 of which are abandoned mines, mostly coal and gold. Terry Spicer was critical of the fact Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal had identified one operations base as “high risk” ten years ago but no followup action appeared to have been taken when he did an audit earlier this year.

TIR communications advisor Marla MacInnis says the matter has been subsequently resolved and emailed the  following explanation:

The site referred to in the Auditor General’s report is the operations base in Brooklyn, Hants County. A review completed on bases between 1995 and 2010, identified Brooklyn as “high risk” because of reference to fuel oil around a tank in a 2000 report. The 2010 report noted that work was completed in 2002 but did not note that the tank issue was resolved. No action was taken in 2010, as it was understood internally that the report was in error and the issue was resolved. There was no documentation of this follow-up and so the Office of the Auditor General continues to refer to the site as “high risk.”

We have completed follow-up work this year and reconfirmed that there is no fuel in the groundwater associated with the fuel storage on this site.

Why revisit contaminated sites?

 Here are a few of the reasons why the Auditor General revisited this file:

  1. Contaminated sites can have a significant impact on human health and the environment. (See Joan Baxter’s three-part series in the Halifax Examiner published in March 2020)
  2. The Province recorded a $372.1 million liability for cleaning up 127 toxic sites in March 2019. A year ago, $48 million was earmarked to begin the cleanup of two sites mentioned earlier. The AG wanted to know how much progress had been made assessing other potential sites and what that might cost. The auditor general will release a new liability estimate when Public Accounts reports later in August.
  3. Four of 16 recommendations from the 2010 Management of Contaminated Sites audit of the Environment Department appeared incomplete, including improving quality assurance and the process by which information about contaminated sites is recorded by inspectors and made available to their managers.

Spicer said his office “found holes” in the regulatory process whereby managers rarely checked to see whether the actions taken by inspectors in the field followed the policies of the Environment Department. Spicer says since completing the follow-up audit, the Environment Department has informed the AG a new process has been implemented and all recommendations from 10 years ago have finally been addressed.

“Generally speaking, I wouldn’t want people to think the province isn’t working on addressing contaminated sites because they are,” said Spicer. “It’s really about the need for a risk-management framework that provides them with the information so they can make the best decisions about where resources should go.”

The way forward

All of Spicer’s recommendations regarding how to organize and manage the environmental (as well as financial) risks around contaminated sites have been accepted by the various government departments. Here are his top four recommendations:

Recommendation 1.1

The Executive Council Office should assign responsibility to an oversight body to implement a consistent, coordinated approach for assessing and managing known and potentially contaminated sites the Province is responsible for.

Recommendation 1.2

The Province of Nova Scotia should have a complete inventory of known and potentially contaminated sites the Province is responsible for, including a process to monitor relevant information for decision making.

Recommendation 1.3

The Province of Nova Scotia should implement a risk-based approach to assess and prioritize all known and potentially contaminated sites the Province is responsible for.

Recommendation 1.4

The Department of Environment should ensure that management provides appropriate oversight of its inspectors.

In two years time, the auditor general will tell us how much action has actually resulted from recommendations aimed at cleaning up more than 100 potential ticking time bombs.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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