Gold exploration and mining companies are lining up to get at Nova Scotia’s gold, as the province undergoes a fourth gold rush. In 2017, Atlantic Gold opened the province’s first-ever open pit gold mine in Moose River, with plans to open three more along the Eastern Shore, in what it described to potential investors as its “string of pearls” in “backyard Canada.” In 2019, Australia’s St Barbara bought Atlantic Gold for $722 million, taking the company back to its Australian roots, before it changed its name from D.D.V. Gold to Atlantic Gold. In recent years, many other players have entered the gold fray in Nova Scotia, including Meguma Gold, Aurelius Minerals, and also Anaconda Mining. All are eyeing gold on the province’s Eastern Shore, which Barbara Markovits of Eastern Shore Forest Watch has described as a “sacrifice zone.” This, the second of three articles on the gold rush and Anaconda’s gold project in Nova Scotia, looks at how Anaconda aims to avoid a federal assessment, and asks whether the whole regulatory process is suffering from corporate capture.
You can read part 1 of this series here.
Anaconda’s CEO Kevin Bullock is brimming with enthusiasm over the gold deposits his company wants to mine in Goldboro on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore.
“It’s the highest grade undeveloped gold mine on the East Coast, and it’s the largest gold deposit in Nova Scotia,” says Bullock.
Bullock is also bullish about the provincial environmental process, which he is confident will bring approval for the mine, and take just two years.
In contrast, Australia’s St Barbara — which owns Atlantic Gold and Atlantic Mining NS, which operates the Touquoy open pit gold mine in Moose River — appears to be bogged down in the joint federal and provincial assessment for its proposed mines in Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream and Cochrane Hill, originally submitted to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC) in 2015, 2018, and 2018, respectively.
Anaconda seems intent on avoiding such delays in the permitting of its planned Goldboro mine, starting with its decision to limit daily production to 4,000 tonnes, which CEO Bullock says will exempt it from a federal assessment.
Anaconda’s Goldboro gold mine – take two
Here the regulatory details and history of the Goldboro project get a bit complex, so a little background is useful.
As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, when Anaconda registers its Goldboro project with Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change (NSECC), it will be for the second time.
The first was in August 2018, when the company registered its “Goldboro Gold Project” with the province for a Class 1 environmental assessment.
At that time, the company said it proposed to operate “a 575 tonne per day, 24 hour/day, 7 day/week, surface and underground gold mine with a concentrator and accompanying tailings facility” that would have a footprint of about 126 hectares, with production starting in 2020 and ending in 2029.
The following month, then-Environment Minister Margaret Miller released her decision that the “registration information” Anaconda submitted was “insufficient.” Miller wrote:
Concerns were raised regarding the potential impacts of the Project on: soil, water resources, wetlands, flora and fauna, species at risk, fish and fish habitat, air quality, noise, human health, and contingency planning. These concerns were raised through public and Mi’kmaq submissions, as well as submissions by Nova Scotia Environment, Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry, Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Health Canada.
In October 2018, Nova Scotia Environment published the Terms of Reference (TOR) for the focus report.
The same month, Kirby McVicar registered as a lobbyist for Anaconda to work with the company “to assist in navigating the Environmental and Industrial Assessment processes in Nova Scotia.” McVicar came from a very privileged position in the corridors of power.
As Mary Campbell reported in the Cape Breton Spectator, McVicar had been chief of staff to Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil until November 2015, after which he started the lobbying firm, Iris Communications.
McVicar’s lobbying for Anaconda ended in November 2019, at which point it was no longer needed.
That’s because Anaconda withdrew its Goldboro proposal in September 2019, a proposal Bullock now tells the Halifax Examiner was “hogwash.”
However, this is just part of the complex story.
Ottawa gets involved … and then uninvolved
According to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, in November 2018, the Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office (KMKNO) — the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative that is now known as KMK — requested Anaconda’s Goldboro mine project be designated for federal assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012.
KMKNO had “concerns of potential adverse environmental effects and potential impacts to Aboriginal and Treaty rights.”
The KMKNO request, says the IAAC, came following the September 2018 decision by Nova Scotia’s environment minister that Anaconda had to provide a focus report for the mine project.
But in August 2019, there were big changes in the federal government and the environmental assessment process. The Impact Assessment Act came into force, and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012 was repealed.
That meant the project would have to be considered under the new legislation, and the request from KMKNO that the gold mine proposal be “designated” for a federal assessment under the former Act was “terminated.”
Here things get truly confusing.
Since I can’t make head or tail of the IAAC explanation, I’ll just paste the whole convoluted statement here, hoping readers are better at navigating the bureaucratic weeds than I am:
On September 16, 2019 the proponent [Anaconda] submitted a request to the provincial Minister of Environment to withdraw the original 2018 Registration Document due to project changes. The proponent anticipates they will submit a new Registration Document before the end of the 2019 calendar year. In advance of this submission to the Province, the proponent provided additional information to the Agency on September 13, 2019 regarding the proposed changes to the Project. The updated provincial Environmental Assessment Registration Document was not available to the Agency to support the review of this designation request. Federal departments will continue to provide expert advice in the provincial assessment.
Advice on applicable legislative mechanisms and potential effects due to the Project was received from Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Health Canada. Advice from provincial experts provided to Nova Scotia Environment as part of the review of the 2018 Registration Document was also considered by the Agency.
Finding refuge between the regulatory cracks?
Based on the information Anaconda provided to the IAAC in September 2019, the federal agency noted that because the mine would have “a maximum production capacity of 575 tonnes per day,” it was “not included in the Regulations,” meaning it would not trigger a federal assessment.
The IAAC analysis concedes that the “information provided in the 2018 Registration Document and the 2019 additional information package is limited.”
However, IAAC said there was enough information about the Goldboro gold mine project to suggest that there could be environmental effects that should be regulated by the federal government, including:
- effects on fish and fish habitat,
- effects on migratory birds, and
- effects on Indigenous Peoples’ health and socio-economic conditions, physical and cultural heritage, current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes and any structure, site or thing that is of historical, archaeological, paleontological or architectural significance.
The IAAC states that in 2019 there were public concerns, and also a litany of Indigenous ones about the Goldboro project:
The KMKNO indicated that the project area is used for traditional and current use activities (i.e. deer hunting and trout fishing). In addition, the Mi’kmaq harvest salmon, bass, eel, blueberries, fir trees, rabbits, sea urchin and spruce trees within the project area. The KMKNO anticipates that the Project would impact Mi’kmaq Rights and Title and further notes that the Project is one of several gold mines operating or proposed in the region, which will act cumulatively for a magnified effect on Mi’kmaq Rights and Title. The Native Council of Nova Scotia expressed concern that the Project has the potential for adverse effects to fish and fish habitat, wetlands, aquatic species, migratory birds, species at risk (including bats), air quality, Indigenous peoples’ health and socioeconomic conditions, and current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes. The Native Council of Nova Scotia acknowledged that the project area has seen intensive gold mining and processing in the past, and indicated that existing contamination in soil and water may become mobilized through proposed project activities such as blasting.
But, notes the IAAC, there was also support for the mine project. And that support in 2019 came from none other than Vernon Pitts, the MODG warden, who appeared in Part 1 of this series, heaping praise on Anaconda and its Goldboro project. Pitts was no less enthusiastic in 2019. According to the IAAC:
The Warden of the Municipality of the District of Guysborough also submitted comments regarding the extent of consultation undertaken by the proponent [Anaconda] and the concerns raised by the municipality. He offered support to the Project, on behalf of the Municipality of the District of Guysborough, based on favourable responses to the noted concerns, which included wetland compensation, impacts to drinking water, continued public engagement, and local employment.
It looks as if Pitts’ support for the mine won the day, overriding that long list of serious Indigenous concerns that prompted the request for a federal assessment.
On December 12, 2019, Jonathan Wilkinson, then Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, declared that no federal assessment was warranted for the Goldboro gold mine.
This decision came two months after Anaconda had already withdrawn its Goldboro mine project with the provincial government, because, as Anaconda’s CEO says, the proposal was “hogwash.”
So what happens next?
Mines in Nova Scotia — at least the ones that don’t trigger a federal assessment — require only a provincial Class I assessment, which can be completed in just 50 days.
If a company fails to provide sufficient information in its application, Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change can delay a Class I assessment by asking for a focus report, as happened to Anaconda’s 2018 mine proposal, or for more information, as has happened to Atlantic Gold’s application to expand waste rock facilities, deposit tailings in the open pit, and modify other features at its Touquoy gold mine.
Class II assessments are required for “large-scale projects like solid waste incinerators, petrochemical facilities, and pulp plants.” They require environmental assessment reports and involve expert panels, and early consultation with the Mi’kmaq.
But Class I assessments are deemed sufficient for giant open pit mines that unearth and leave behind mountains of waste rock, which can produce acid rock drainage, and toxic tailings that need to be maintained and monitored in perpetuity, long, long after gold miners have packed up and gone home with their profits.
In contrast, and as St Barbara’s Atlantic Gold is learning, federal assessments can take several years, and many rounds of requests for more information if registration documents are found to be wanting.
Atlantic Gold managed to avoid a federal assessment for its Moose River mine, which was approved by the province in 2008, reportedly because at the time its proposed daily production did not exceed the threshold for a federal assessment. It certainly exceeds that now, at 8,400 tonnes of ore per day.
So what is the trigger these days for a federal impact assessment?
According to IAAC spokesperson Jaclyn Sauvé, it all has to do with “items 18 and 19” of the “Physical Activities Regulations,” although she notes that under the Impact Assessment Act, the “Minister of Environment and Climate change does have the power to designate a project that is not automatically designed under the Regulations.”
The relevant portions of Items 18 and 19 state that a federal assessment is required for:
- any new metal mine with an ore production capacity of 5,000 tonnes per day or more
- the expansion of any existing metal mine if the expansion would result in an increase of mining operations of 50% or more and the total ore production capacity would be 5,000 tonnes per day or more after the expansion
This is where things became, once again, a bit … well … curious.
“They’re going to say you’re playing games”
According to Sauvé, the previous federal environmental legislation (CEAA 2012), under which Anaconda initially submitted its Goldboro project, set the threshold for a federal assessment at a daily ore production of 600 tonnes.
When this legislation was still in force, Anaconda submitted a proposal to the federal government for a gold mine in Goldboro that would have produced 575 tonnes per day, just below the threshold for a federal assessment.
Now, with a new threshold of 5,000 tonnes per day in the federal laws, the company is saying that its proposed mine will produce just 4,000 tonnes per day, so again below the federal threshold, but a good deal higher than the 575 tonnes that it said it would be producing in its 2018 registration documents.
Bullock describes the find at Goldboro as “the largest gold deposit in Nova Scotia,” so it is interesting that Anaconda plans to limit the mine to 4,000 tonnes of ore per day.
Asked for an explanation of what that actually means, Bullock replies:
So 5,000 tonnes a day would be your through-put through the mill … of ore. So it doesn’t matter how many total tonnes you’re mining, it’s how much ore you’re putting through the mill and how much tailings you’re creating. So that limit is 5,000 tonnes a day. But even if you’re at 4,500 and approaching it, they’re going to say you’re playing games and you’re going to actually produce 10% higher … So we stayed at 4,000 to be away from that federal permit situation. Not because we have any issues doing something federally, but it’s just because it would take another two years. It’s just that it takes longer. (emphasis added)
But I still wasn’t clear on that crucial federal threshold. When they speak of a “production capacity of 5,000 tonnes per day,” do they mean the total amount of rock extracted from the mine each day, or just what is milled every day, which is how Bullock seems to be interpreting the regulation?
This is what I asked IAAC spokesperson Sauvé. And this is her reply:
5,000 tonnes per day refers to the ore production capacity of a new metal mine (section 18(c) of the Physical Activities Regulations). In interpreting this item, “ore” refers to the material that has been extracted from the ground before it undergoes any milling process. [emphasis added]
And yet this is what Bullock says when asked if the 4,000 tonne daily production at the Goldboro mine is the total amount of ore coming from the mine or going through the mill every day:
The mill will process 4,000 TPD [tonnes per day] of ore from a combination of production from both pits as well as from a stockpile at times. The mine plan may, at time produce more ore than 4,000 TPD however the excess would go to a stockpile that would be used during phases of the mine-life when ore production is a little lower than 4,000 TPD.
It remains to be seen how the apparent discrepancy between the federal interpretation of its own legislation, and Bullock’s insistence that the threshold has only to do with how much ore is milled every day, will be resolved when Anaconda registers its project with the province.
According to Sauvé, because Anaconda’s Goldboro mine is not “designated” for a federal assessment, “the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada will not be involved in the assessment of this project.”
But she adds, “This may change if the project undergoes a change and the new proposed activities fall within the Regulations. Once a project is designated, it moves into the planning phase of the Impact Assessment Process.”
In other words, clear as slurry from a gold mine.
Regulators captured by industry?
In his book “The Corporation,” Joel Bakan writes that corporate — or regulatory — capture is a term coined by economist George Stigler in the 1960s, to “… describe corporations’ domination of regulatory agencies through lobbying and selective information sharing.” Corporate capture has become endemic, according to Bakan, and:
… many corporations regularly breach regulatory laws, confident they won’t be caught or that, if they are, the financial benefits derived from the breach will exceed the costs of the fines assessed against them; regulatory agencies tend to be understaffed, unaccountable, and peopled by bureaucrats — many of whom are drawn from the industries being regulated — who see themselves as partners with industry, rather than its overseers; and the standards established by regulatory laws often are reactive, rather than preventive, and too weak to stop corporations from causing serious harm to people and the environment.
A stark example of how cozy the mining industry is with the federal government came last year when then-Natural Resources Canada Minister Seamus O’Regan and the CEO of the Mining Association of Canada co-signed a series of opinion pieces championing mining as a panacea for transitioning to a green economy.
In doing so, O’Regan “crossed an ethical line,” wrote Donna Ashamock, a Cree affiliated with Fort Albany First Nation and co-chair of MiningWatch Canada, and Ugo Lapointe, also of MiningWatch Canada.
“In the letters, O’Regan joined the CEO of Canada’s largest mining lobby group to promote the interests of the very same industry the minister is supposed to regulate on behalf of all Canadians,” they wrote. “Under cover of the need to supply materials for a ‘green economy,’ the letters use overstated rhetoric commonly employed by the Mining Association of Canada to further its interests in extracting more raw materials at the expense of alternative solutions.”
John Perkins is a member of Sustainable Northern Nova Scotia (SuNNS), and on the steering committee of the Western Mining Action Network, which has been looking at mining reform and the environmental assessment process across Canada.
“We’re being totally bamboozled by the corporate capture of our political decision-making process,” Perkins tells the Examiner.
In Perkins’ view, the permitting process for mines in Nova Scotia is “on the wrong track.”
He also thinks it’s time to get rid of the “free entry” system that allows — even invites — mineral exploration just about anywhere in the province, with the exception of national and provincial parks and wilderness areas. Perkins describes this “free entry” system for mineral prospecting and mining as “colonial, medieval, the king-takes-it-all approach.”
Related: Gold fever is coming to Halifax
“One window” regulatory process in Nova Scotia
Perkins believes the entire assessment process for mines needed to be upended, to “cut through the corporate political activity and corporate capture of the departments,” which he says are “in the business of facilitating the extraction of resources, and providing a veneer of pseudo legitimacy in terms of oversight and regulation.”
Perkins is particularly critical of Nova Scotia’s “One Window” regulatory process, which was begun in 1994 under the Liberal government of Premier John Savage, to provide mining companies with “timely and consistent guidance for new and existing mining projects in the province.”
The One Window process brings together several government departments to work together to “simplify the review of mining projects in the province” and it “facilitates communication between industry proponents and government.”
The Department of Natural Resources and Renewables explains it this way:
Proponents of a mineral development project are encouraged to contact the Chair of the ‘One Window’ Standing Committee to arrange an initial, informal meeting with the committee. The purpose of this meeting is for the proponent to provide an overview of a new project. The committee will then advise and assist the proponent to understand the regulatory requirements for the project to proceed. Nova Scotia Environment will also make a determination if an Environmental Assessment will be required for the proposed phases of the project. The Mineral Development and Policy Section of the Mineral Resources Branch developed a User’s Guide to the ‘One Window’ Process to assist proponents through the process.
With such a welcome committee, Perkins says it’s not surprising that gold miners are drawn to Nova Scotia:
We have invited these carpetbaggers in, and welcomed them with open arms. The Department of Natural Resources and Mines have been trekking off to the PDAC [Prospectors and Developers of Canada Association] conferences for years, saying, “Come to Nova Scotia, we are a great place to do business. We’ll do everything we possibly can to get your mine approved and we won’t charge you very much money for it. In fact, we’ll open our wallets for you and you can just sort of take the subsidies that you need. So what do we expect? That’s exactly what’s going to happen. We have signalled to those companies our intention to welcome them, and they are just they are playing the development, public relations playbook.
Perkins believes that all hard rock mines should have to undergo a joint federal-provincial assessment, and include the cumulative effects of a project.
If we start looking at watersheds, not just a particular lake or a river, but the entire watershed that feeds that area where we are, by having that swath of potential destruction across the Eastern Shore that that has the potential to impact and involve what, a third or a half of the watersheds in Nova Scotia, are we willing to let that happen?
Perkins believes the whole impact assessment process is a “rigged game,” adding:
If the proponent was required to pay the same amount of money to the province as they spend on consultants preparing their proposal, so that the province and the civil society groups with an interest had the same resources to research it, that would be a huge step and kind of levelling the playing field there. But at the root of mining in Canada and mining in Nova Scotia is still an act of colonization that continues to this day.
Not only does the province not charge mining companies for the enormous amount of time they spend working with them to facilitate the assessment process and assess their proposals, it actually gives them money to explore for gold and develop their projects.
In the past three years, Anaconda and its subsidiary Orex received more than a quarter of a million dollars ($273,000) from Nova Scotia’s Mineral Resources Development Fund for gold exploration in Goldboro: $80,000 in 2021, $150,000 in 2020, and $43,000 in 2019.
First Nations concerned about cumulative effects of mines
There are also First Nations concerns about the lack of attention to the cumulative effects of all the gold mines proposed for the Eastern Shore.
Mi’kmaw Ecological Knowledge studies done for Atlantic Gold’s proposed Fifteen Mile Steam and Cochrane Hill mines note the importance of the eastern half of the province to the Mi’kmaq for hunting, trapping, foraging and fishing.
The entire region was traditionally so important for the Mi’kmaq that in the mid-1700s, Abbé Jean-Louis LaLoutre who supported Mi’kmaq resistance to the British, petitioned the colonial authorities to set aside all of eastern Nova Scotia (today Cumberland, Colchester, Pictou, Antigonish and Guysborough counties) in perpetuity for Mi’kmaw use.
The British colonists didn’t go for that, of course.
Today eastern Nova Scotia, especially the sparsely settled interior, is particularly important to Mi’kmaq communities, harbouring the largest concentration of endangered mainland moose in the province. The region has intact ecosystems in areas that have managed to escape the rampant clearcutting of recent decades. It has always been and remains an important resource area for the Mi’kmaw, with its river systems and connected lakes that offered many food resources.
According to one Mi’kmaw Ecological Knowledge study, “increasing industrialization and contamination of the natural environment can not remain without adverse impacts on Mi’kmaw culture.”
Given the amount of gold exploration and the number of proposed gold mines on the Eastern Shore, the study has this to say about what a meaningful impact assessment would entail:
In order to assess community impacts in any meaningful manner, the combined effects of all these recent and proposed developments and the resulting environmental changes need to be concerned. In other words, any EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] not considering the cumulative stresses and changes on both human and non-human living communities must be considered insufficient.
And yet the federal Impact Assessment Agency continues to assess each of Atlantic Gold’s proposed mines individually, while Anaconda is counting on getting by with a Class I provincial assessment, and getting its permit to go ahead with a new mine at Goldboro in less than two years.
Is Anaconda looking to sell Goldboro?
Asked if companies like St Barbara might be eyeing the Anaconda property in Goldboro with thoughts of buying it once it gets provincial approval, Bullock replies, “Well obviously I can’t comment on that.”
Bullock, whose career in gold mining really took off in West Africa, acknowledges instability in countries in the region means some Canadians involved in mining there are now coming back to Canada.
Asked if the growing insecurity in West Africa might lead big players in the region to look to gold properties like Anaconda’s in Goldboro, Bullock replies, “People are starting to be aware of this project because it demonstrates very robust economics. But globally, it is not a large producer at 100,000 ounces a year. It’s on the small end for mid-tiers and majors.” He adds:
It’s right at that level that I think mid-tiers would certainly want to take a look at. It’s too small for majors. You know, larger juniors would certainly want it. I mean, just the economics of this fall in line with what anybody would want. And it’s in a safe jurisdiction. So there will be a lot of interest as we move forward and then jump some hurdles towards getting fully permitted.
Bullock figures it will take 18 months to two years to get provincial approval and permitting for the mine.