If learning from past mistakes were a government tradition in Nova Scotia, the current government would not be exhibiting all the symptoms of gold fever. But it is, and it looks like a raging bout of the affliction.

In the past few years, it has amended legislation based on recommendations made by the industry’s cheerleader-in-chief, the Mining Association of Nova Scotia (MANS) led by Sean Kirby,[1] Donald James and Lori Blackburn. Introducing Bill 149: the new Mineral Resources Act. The Geological Record, Spring 2016: Vol 3(2): p 6 It has also been aggressively promoting gold exploration and mining in the province, and handing out money to gold-seekers and gold-diggers.

According to the Department of Energy and Mines (DEM) website, between 2012 and 2018 the government’s Mineral Incentives Program dished out roughly $3.2 million in grants. The vast majority of the grants went to mining companies and individual prospectors, with a fair amount of double-dipping by prospectors who received funds for their own exploration and also for exploration by their companies.

That annual $800,000 incentives program has now given way to the larger $1.5-million Mineral Resources Development Fund or MRDF.

Insiders all round

The public may be a little surprised at the names of some of the companies and prospectors who have received grants in recent years — or perhaps not, given the composition of the Advisory Council to the MRDF.  The council “may be assigned” responsibilities to provide “advice and direction regarding potential Major projects which may be supported by the Fund,” although it is not supposed to be part of any grant application process.

There is no one on the council representing citizens or scientists with genuine concerns about the environmental effects of mining, let alone of open pit gold mining being promoted in the latest gold rush. Three of the five members represent industry:

Mr. Rick Horne, Mining Association of Nova Scotia
Mr. John Wightman, Prospectors Association of Nova Scotia
Mr. Christian West, Mining Society of Nova Scotia
Dr. Jacob Hanley, the geology departments of the province’s universities
Mr. George O’Reilly, Minister’s Nominee [former mineral deposits geologist at Department of Natural Resources]

Since 2012, Wightman has benefited from $190,250 in prospector grants. In addition, Magnum Resources, of which Wightman is president, received $90,000.

The Department of Energy and Mines has yet to post the 2019 MRDF grants on its website, but as the Halifax Examiner reported here, Vancouver-based Osprey Gold has announced that it received “generous provincial grants” for geophysical surveys in Caribou and Goldenville, both historic gold mining areas in Nova Scotia. Perry MacKinnon, a prospector who has received a total of $57,500 in grants over the years, is also Osprey’s vice president of exploration.

I emailed both DEM and Osprey president and director, Cooper Quinn, to find out the value of those grants. Quinn sent a quick and cordial reply. Unfortunately, it was just to let me know that “Full information will be disclosed on the Department’s website as it becomes available.” Government media relations advisor Bruce Nunn later replied that Osprey received $50,000 for the aerial survey work at the two sites.

While it may sheer coincidence, the same week Osprey announced the grants, its shares moved 22.22%, more than recovering what they had lost the previous year.

Between 2012 and 2018, 30 different mining companies received public funds for mineral exploration in the province. Some are small local ones, but others are neither local nor obvious candidates for public charity.

Among them are mining giant IAMGOLD, which received $50,000 to explore for gold in the Cape Breton Highlands.

Atlantic Gold, which owns the gold mine at Moose River and has proposed three more as part of its Moose River Consolidated Project that involves an additional three open pit mines in eastern Nova Scotia (and one of Atlantic Gold’s earlier incarnations, DDV Gold) has been given $131,000 to look for gold in the province.

Using its gold mining leases in Nova Scotia to boost its shares, Atlantic Gold is now selling out to the Australian firm St. Barbara in a $722-million deal. I wonder if they intend to thank the people of Nova Scotia for the use of their underground gold deposits to bankroll their hefty profits. After all, Atlantic Gold reported paying no taxes to either the federal or provincial governments last year, despite a year of highly profitable gold production.

And then there’s the Mining Association of Nova Scotia. MANS president Sean Kirby is registered as a lobbyist to represent the mining and quarrying industry before provincial politicians and bureaucrats who regulate the industry. And yet, the very government it lobbies is giving financial support to MANS — alongside MANS and the Prospectors Association, the government is also a sponsor of the “Gold Show” to be held in October 2019.

In 2018, $125,000 of the MRDF largesse from the citizens of Nova Scotia went to MANS, for something called “Minerals Play Fairway,” a “needs assessment of airborne geophysical data,” a time lapse reclamation video, and an “Industry Education Conference” on “consultation and safety.”

The same year, researchers from Memorial, Acadia, St. Mary’s and Dalhousie Universities received a total of $105,600 for work that will ultimately promote mining and exploration.

Each year, the province sends a large delegation to the Prospectors and Developers Association Convention (PDAC) in Toronto, operating a Nova Scotia booth and hosting a Nova Scotia Mining Breakfast, as part of its efforts to woo still more mining companies to the province.

In an email, DEM spokesperson Gary Andrea told me that Nova Scotia’s involvement at the 2018 PDAC convention in Toronto cost $114,956.

The people of the province footed the bill for nine DEM representatives to attend, including the deputy minister, executive director geoscience and mines branch Donald James, and seven staff members. The Mineral Resources Development Fund provided support for 10 prospectors to go to the world’s largest mining bash in Toronto. The Nova Scotia breakfast cost $13,555. Must have been quite a breakfast.

The province’s booth cost $24,766, and its redesign this year set Nova Scotians back $33,860.

Andrea prefaced his emailed answer to my question about these costs with a pep talk on mining, eerily similar to what appears on the MANS website. Wrote Andrea:

The mining sector is an important part of Nova Scotia’s economy.  It creates jobs in rural communities across the province and provides revenue to government that helps pay for hospitals, roads, schools and many other programs and services for Nova Scotians.

The Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention in Toronto is one of the largest gatherings of people, companies and organizations involved in mineral exploration and development. Each year the convention attracts more than 25,000 attendees and 1,000 exhibitors from more than 125 countries. Interaction with an audience of this size and influence is an important part of how we work to attract new investment to our province from this sector.

No hint from DEM that there are any down sides to gold mining, especially the giant open pit gold mines that have replaced underground ones as rich veins have been mined out. No mention of the awful reality of the climate emergency we are in, and that enormous amounts of rock have to be blasted from the earth and processed to extract miniscule amounts of gold, so that the energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions are “higher per tonne of gold” than for the same volume of other metals. No mention of how often tailings facilities — full of arsenic and other carcinogenic by-products of mining — fail at even modern mines, including here in Canada.

The 2014 breach of the tailings dam at BC’s Mt. Polley gold and copper mine was one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters, and taxpayers are saddled with the $40-million clean-up costs. Photo courtesy Cariboo Regional District

Nor does the government or the mining industry acknowledge the simple fact that we do not need to produce any more gold. The World Gold Council reports that there is oodles and oodles of it lying about in private investment and bank vaults — far, far more than the small amounts needed for our phones and other electronic devices.

The legacy of previous gold rushes

With the government of Nova Scotia hell-bent on pinning the province’s future to a 21st century gold rush, it’s worthwhile having a look at the toxic legacy of three previous gold rushes in the 19th and 20th centuries — an enormous environmental debt that has yet to be even calculated, let alone paid.

In 2018, the government allocated $142,000 of the MRDF to much-needed and urgent research led by Professor Linda Campbell of Saint Mary’s University on “highly contaminated mine tailing impacted wetlands” throughout the province.

Linda Campbell at Montague mine tailings site. Photo: Joan Baxter

One of those is Montague Mines in Dartmouth, not far from Lake Major that supplies the city’s drinking water. The mining site is downstream from Loon Lake, from which Mitchell Brook flows to Lake Charles, through the historic tailings area. Montague was heavily mined from the 1860s until the 1940s, and many deep and treacherous shafts still exist, which the government keeps posted or fenced to prevent accidents.

A fenced in Montague Mine shaft. Photo: Joan Baxter

Although the provincial government has limited public access to the tailings site and a special Crown Permit is officially required to enter the area, it has long been a popular track for ATVs. A previous experiment at capping the tailings in layers in a mound with clay, geo-textiles and other materials was turned into a jump for the four-wheelers.

According to Campbell, who took me on a tour of the site, the tailings have elevated levels of arsenic, and a nearby wetland has also been found to contain very high levels of mercury, which is seriously affecting the vegetation there.

Despite the signs warning people to stay away from the area because of health risks posed by the arsenic, it is obvious from the tire tracks that crisscross the site that it is still a popular spot for ATV riding. There are also shotgun shells on the ground, indicating that people hunt there.

I asked Campbell if it would be dangerous to eat wildlife hunted on the site. She replied that nobody has researched that yet.

An ATV jump at the Montague Mine tailings site. Photo: Joan Baxter

Campbell sees historic tailings in the province’s wetlands as a “big problem,” the full extent of which no one knows yet. Tailings have not been fully mapped, let alone assessed and analyzed to gauge the health risks they pose. While there has been some excellent research in the past, it is not obvious that any level of government is interested in supporting more of it.

Campbell and her team were working on an experimental capping solution using native vegetation to keep the contamination in check, which she says could potentially lead to cost savings and support natural recovery of impacted wetland sites. She applied for another grant from the MDRF this year to continue that work. Her funding application was turned down.

She says she’s been “knocking on doors” to try to convince various government departments and levels of governments of how serious the issue is, but has not been able to secure funding.

Campbell estimates that the work required for a site like Montague would cost about $500,000, and would include paying people fair wages, lab analysis, mapping, and data collection. This would then be a pilot site for the entire province.

Campbell sees this research as “good investment.” She says:

We want to have good quality science, and we don’t want to cause panic. We just want to provide some evidence. It would lead to cost saving down the road, in health and environment. If people can actually enjoy hunting and fishing in these areas [historic mine tailings sites] and using an ATV, it really benefits everyone. And it’s not just an environmental issue … it’s also the economic value of this area… It impacts people at many levels and across the province. If you ignore the problem, it’s going to make it worse.

Historic gold mining in Nova Scotia — mostly underground mines in rich veins that produced far less waste rock and ore than does open pit mining — no doubt created some wealth for those who owned or ran mines. But if three large gold rushes produced a lot of wealth for Nova Scotians, there’s little evidence of that today in 360 abandoned mines in 64 “gold districts.”

A landmark 2012 report by the Geological Survey of Canada documents the findings of studies done between 2003 and 2006 on the environmental and human health hazards of the tailings from just 14 historical gold mining districts in Nova Scotia. Mining at those sites occurred between 1861, when the first gold rush began, until the mid-1940s when the last one ended, and produced more than three million tonnes of tailings, the crushed waste material left after the metal has been extracted.

These tailings are, to put it nicely, not nice at all.

The gold was recovered using mercury, of which 10 to 25% was lost to the tailings and into the atmosphere. The tailings are thus laced with high levels of mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin, and also with arsenic, a carcinogen and a poison.

To make matters worse, the tailings were generally disposed of in rivers, swamps, lakes, and the ocean. As reported here, Nova Scotia has a mercury problem, with some of the highest levels of mercury contamination in Canada, particularly in wetlands around historic mine sites.

According to a 2015 report from the Department of Natural Resources (where the Geosciences and Mines Branch was located until moving to DEM in the summer of 2018), tailings flats can measure up to one square kilometre, and be several metres thick.

Historic tailings

The first investigation into the environmental legacy of the gold mine tailings in the province was in 1976, after a person living in Waverley, where gold was mined from 1862 until 1940, drank water from a dug well and suffered “chronic arsenic intoxication.”

The arsenic concentration in his water was 5,000 μg/L (micrograms per litre), 500 times the 10 μg/L that is the current Health Canada drinking water guideline. This led to the formation of a provincial Arsenic Task Force to study arsenic in well water in Waverley and in other historical gold districts. These studies revealed the presence of not just arsenic but also mercury around the sites, and produced some rather alarming results.

Arsenic is a serious concern, found in 97% of the samples taken from just 14 of the 64 gold districts. Equally worrisome are the extremely high concentrations found in soil quality at some of the sites, up to 10,000 times the current guideline in Nova Scotia for acceptable levels of arsenic in soil.

Surface water is also affected by old mine tailings. A 1988 study of nine gold mining districts found high levels of dissolved arsenic, up to 9500 μg/L with a mean of 460 μg/L, startling numbers when the fresh water aquatic guideline is just 5 μg/L.

The study showed that plants in the tailings areas of the Oldham Gold District near Enfield had elevated concentrations of mercury in their leaves, a sign the neurotoxin was bio-accumulating in the plants.

The 2012 Geological Survey of Canada report concluded that:

a) Most abandoned gold mine sites in Nova Scotia contain large amounts of tailings. In some areas the tailings have been transported significant distances [greater than 2 km] offsite by local streams and rivers.

b) Tailings and stream sediments near these mine sites contain average concentrations of arsenic and mercury that are about 340 and 140 times background levels in soils, respectively.

c) Dissolved arsenic concentrations in stream waters that drain through tailings are well above guidelines for drinking water quality and the protection of aquatic life.

d) Both mercury and arsenic have accumulated in fish and shellfish in some tailings areas, which may pose a risk to human health.

The report concluded that:

Since the mines closed, ongoing residential development, industrial construction, and recreational activities at some sites (e.g. ATV, dirt bike and 4X4 racing) have increased the potential for human exposure to these mine wastes.

Photos from 2004 of off-road races and children playing in historic mine tailings at Goldenville, NS, from 2012 report by Parsons et al., Geological Survey of Canada.

The gold mines tailings committee

Despite the lack of funding for research on the scope of the huge risks posed by historic mine tailings, the Nova Scotia government does seem to be aware — or at least it once was — that there is a problem waiting to be addressed.

In 2005, an inter-departmental “Historic Gold Mines Advisory Committee” was established to “evaluate the potential ecological and human health risks associated with tailings and to develop risk management recommendations.”

Nova Scotia Environment chaired the committee, which included five provincial and five federal departments.

What happened to that committee is a mystery.

In 2015, DNR noted that “extensive work” had been completed to “characterize the nature and extent of the tailings,” and that this information was “available to support risk assessments.”

It reported that an “ecological risk assessment” had been completed, which found that meadow voles at Montague, Upper Seal Harbour, and Lower Seal Harbour historic mining districts had been found to have an “unacceptable risk of having adverse health effects as a result of arsenic exposure.”

But the DNR report also stated that there have been no human health risk assessments “published” for the tailings sites. That statement bears repeating because it is so remarkable, given the incredibly high concentrations of arsenic and mercury in some sites. So here it is again, in its entirety:

Although there have been no human health risk assessments published for the tailings sites, Health Canada completed a human risk assessment for consumption of clams and mussels with high arsenic levels in Seal Harbour (Environment Canada, 2007). Based on the results of the risk assessment, it was recommended that the harbour and surrounding waters be closed to harvesting. Signs were posted to alert shellfishers and the public to the closure.

Given these alarming findings, one has to ask why no human risks assessments have been done.

And what on earth happened to the Historic Gold Mines Advisory Committee, which should have coordinated such work? How long did it exist? Was it officially disbanded? Was there ever a final report?

I sent these questions to both DEM and NS Environment. Neither has sent answers as of this writing. I could find no mention of the committee’s work after 2006, and it looks as if it may have quietly faded away or been dissolved.

Nova Scotians have the right to know why.

Especially since, around that time, as a hint of that a new gold rush might be on the horizon, D.D.V. Gold (the Australian predecessor of Atlantic Gold) started working to get the province’s first 21st century gold mine going at Moose River, another historic mine district.

Surely at that point, the Historic Gold Mines Advisory Committee would have been more important than ever as mining companies began showing renewed interest in those very same mining sites, with all those problematic tailings?

Instead, the only obvious legacy of the government’s earlier concern with the tailings at legacy mine sites are a few pages on the NS Environment website. One, Historic Gold Mine Tailings, outlines the issues. There are three fact sheets — on gold mine tailings, arsenic from gold mine tailings, and mercury from gold mine tailings —  and another page with photos showing what gold mine tailings look like.

Although I have still not heard back from Nova Scotia Environment about the fate of the committee, spokesperson Adèle Poirier did alert me to this 2005 press release about its work and a warning to Nova Scotians about the risks of the tailings sites. This resulted in a Fish Consumption Advisory, which Poirier said should not be cited, as it is outdated content.

What happens to all that contamination?

So what happens to all those contaminated mining tailings, as a new gold rush gathers momentum, with exploration companies focussing so intently on historic gold districts?

The Industrial Approval that the province granted to Atlantic Gold for its gold mine at Moose River — the first open pit gold mine in the province — stipulates that the company develop and submit a “Historic Mine Tailings Management Plan,” and that it include the “results of a technical study of the potential mobility of mercury into the receiving environment.”

I requested a copy of that plan from Nova Scotia Environment, and was told that I would need to make a Freedom of Information request for it “due to privacy matters.” I have filed that request, but am not optimistic; a previous Freedom of Information request to the Department of Energy and Mines for Atlantic Gold’s reclamation plan for the Moose River mine was refused, as I wrote here.

The Industrial Approval (IA) additionally stipulates that historic tailings deposited in the current tailings management facility at the Moose River mine are to be placed within an “encapsulated cell.” Asked whether this had been done, another NSE spokesperson, Lisa Jarrett, said the work was “ongoing.”

The IA also states that Atlantic Gold “shall not process historic tailings for the purpose of gold recovery without the approval of the Department.”

Jarrett told me that the company would have to ask for an amendment to its IA if it wanted to do any reprocessing of historic tailings, and that it hadn’t asked. If it did, she said, Nova Scotia Environment would “evaluate the environmental risks, including mercury.”

At the ill-fated information session on tailings management that Atlantic Gold held in late May in Sherbrooke, close to the site of its proposed open pit mine at another historic mining site, Cochrane Hill, the company’s manager of environment and permitting, James Millard, told the audience that their intention for the proposed mine would be to remove historic tailings and store them in an engineered facility, as was being done at the Touquoy mine in Moose River, or to reprocess them.

This led me to wonder what would happen if historic mine tailings with high levels of mercury were introduced into a new tailings management facility that was not specially designed to deal with this dangerous heavy metal.

Atlantic Gold uses cyanide, as do most modern industrial gold mines, to recover gold from the ore, so mercury would not be a substance they would be expecting to find in large concentrations in their tailings.

I emailed Atlantic Gold’s communications manager, Dustin O’Leary to ask if the company planned to reprocess historic tailings at any of the proposed three mines or at Touquoy, and if so, if any provision had been made for the mercury in them.

He sent his standard reply: “Thank you for your inquiry. At this time, Atlantic Gold has elected not to participate in the article you are writing.”

Nova Scotia’s environmental debt

So where does that leave us, and what is going to happen to all those contaminated historic mining sites that have been documented, and many more that haven’t yet been studied, even as mining companies flock to Nova Scotia’s historic gold fields in search of the metal?

Osprey Gold Development, which received a grant for aerial survey work at two historic mining districts — Goldenville and Caribou — says it is focussed on “Rediscovering gold in Atlantic Canada.” Osprey also says it is planning to drill in those historic mining districts.

I asked Osprey president and director, Cooper Quinn, if they would be drilling on or near historic tailings, and if so, what precautions would be taken. His emailed reply:

We work diligently during all phases of exploration to not disturb historic tailings; they are well mapped at most of our projects. They’re an unfortunate legacy, and an example of how not to operate.

Nova Scotia Environment spokesperson Lisa Jarrett said that no approvals are required for such exploratory drilling, unless it involves bulk samples, water withdrawal, or wetland alterations. Nor are there any regulations that specifically govern historic mine tailings; sites identified as contaminated are regulated under the Environment Act.

So with all these risks, why is the government so determined to bring still more mining companies to the province to promote still more gold mining? Despite all sorts of claims from the industry that gold mining today is more environmentally sound and safer than it was in days of old, look no further than British Columbia and the 2014 Mt. Polley disaster to see that very big environmental disasters happen, and the costs of those inevitably wind up on the shoulders of the public.

Citizens are not entitled to see the reclamation plans that companies submit to government. And of course if any problems occur with a tailings management facility or a reclaimed site after a company has closed a mine and gone off with its profits, governments — or rather, we citizens — will have to pay the high environmental and health costs. That could be years, decades or even centuries from now.

In September 2018, the Crown corporation Nova Scotia Lands issued a request for proposals (RFP) for “closure concepts and costs for former gold mine sites” at Montague and at Goldenville, close to Sherbrooke.

The RFP issues these powerful statements:

The closure plans for these sites require careful attention, due to the high concentrations of arsenic, and the fact that over 70 years of weathering of the tailings has taken place.

Closure plans for these sites, therefore, must carefully consider the geochemistry, and ensure the proposed closure solution will not exacerbate the situation.

I emailed DEM to find out the progress on those closure plans, and was told my question had been forwarded to Lands and Forestry. When I heard nothing, I sent an email to Nova Scotia Lands, and was told that Communications Nova Scotia staff were preparing a response. At the time of writing, that has not arrived.

How costly the historic mine tailings will be to assess and then to clean up, if indeed that is even possible, remains a very big — unasked and thus unanswered — question.

One might think that the toxic and expensive legacy of earlier gold rushes would serve as a lesson to those that govern us, convince them to be sceptical of boom and bust extractive industries that bring little except a few short-lived jobs and leave the environmental mess behind for future generations to deal with.

One might think that the government would choose to tackle the historical problem left behind by earlier gold rushes before blindly pursuing yet another one, and adding to the problem.

One might think that, if learning from the past had ever been the Nova Scotia government way.

Joan Baxter is author of the four-part investigative series,Fool’s Gold: Nova Scotia’s myopic pursuit of metals and minerals,” which was a joint publication of the Halifax Examiner and Cape Breton Spectator.

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1 Donald James and Lori Blackburn. Introducing Bill 149: the new Mineral Resources Act. The Geological Record, Spring 2016: Vol 3(2): p 6

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; Twitter @joan_baxter

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  1. Thank goodness for your pursuit of this issue. I tried the link to the federal 2012 report on tailings, but had no luck. It took me to a page where I had to make other choices, none of which got me to the report. Can you fix that?