Clay excavation site near Atlantic Gold Moose River mine Photo: Mitchell Glawson

Just over a month after the construction company contracted by Atlantic Gold to excavate clay for the tailings facility at its open pit gold mine at Moose River assured Krista Gillis of Mooseland that the excavation work wouldn’t cause any more sedimentation in a nearby brook, it has happened again.

On Saturday, January 17, Gillis contacted the Halifax Examiner with news that the brook was once again full of sediment, and she sent another photo of the muddied brook, which looked a lot like it did in a photo taken in December.

Muddy brook downstream from Atlantic gold clay mining site in December 2020. Photo: Mitchell Glawson
Same brook muddied with sediment again on January 17, 2021 Photo Krista Gillis

In her email to Atlantic Gold, federal and provincial government officials, and the contractor, Gillis said she was “truly disappointed and disgusted” that the brook had once again filled with muddy sediment.

On December 23, 2020 the Halifax Examiner reported on Gillis’ concerns about the clay excavation at Cope Hill, about two kilometres from Atlantic Gold’s Moose River mine. The work had caused runoff that was muddying the Camp Lake brook that flows from Cope Lake into Scraggy Lake, which is surrounded almost entirely by the Ship Harbour Long Lake Wilderness Area.

Atlantic Gold Moose River mine (Google Earth)

Atlantic Gold sources the fresh water for its Touquoy gold mine at Moose River from Scraggy Lake — up to 720,000 litres a day, or 262.8 million litres a year, for which Nova Scotia Environment (NSE) spokesperson Barbara MacLean says the province charges the company $370.48 annually.

The lake also receives the mine’s treated effluent.

Scraggy Lake in turn feeds Fish River, which traces “a jagged course” to Lake Charlotte.

The mine and Scraggy Lake are also upstream from the Tangier Grand Lake Wilderness Area.

Ship Harbour Long Lake Wilderness Area shown in green on the left, Tangier Grand Lake Wilderness Area on the right.

Back in December, after Gillis reported the incident to the company and government officials, NSE spokesperson Rachel Boomer told the Examiner that Environment Department staff had visited the site and the incident was “still under investigation.”

Boomer continued:

Atlantic Gold, under its industrial approval for Touquoy, has permission to extract clay on the Moose River Mine site for construction purposes. Environmental monitoring associated with any clay removal at the Touquoy site is covered in its industrial approval. We are aware that a contractor for Atlantic Gold is sourcing off-site clay material for construction purposes at the mine. This off-site clay pit is currently not under approval, as it is our understanding that the source site is less than two hectares in area and does not require an approval as per Section 13 (e) of the Activities Designation Regulations.

Gillis feels that Atlantic Gold should be held responsible for the sedimentation in the freshwater brook, as it hired the contractor to do the clay excavation.

She says that the first time the brook filled with mud in December, the contractor assured her that it would never happen again, and that the area had been fenced and protected with hay.

Gillis also says she is not accepting excuses she’s been given that the cause of the problem is rain, pointing out that such things never happened before land was disturbed.

“If the land wasn’t disturbed, it wouldn’t have happened,” she says. “You know we have rain in Nova Scotia.” Gillis says there is a need for very large buffer areas near brooks and other waterways where no trees should be cut or land disturbed.

This wasn’t the first time that Atlantic Gold’s operations caused alleged environmental problems blamed on rainfall.

Thirty-two environmental charges

When the Examiner reported on the muddied brook in December, it also broke the news that Nova Scotia Environment had charged Atlantic Mining NS Inc., an affiliate of Atlantic Gold that was acquired in 2019 by the Australian gold miner, St. Barbara, with 32 environmental offences.

The next day, Kip Keen at S&P Global Market Intelligence picked up the story.

Atlantic Gold corporate structure in May 2019, before its acquisition. Atlantic Gold is now a “St. Barbara Limited company.”
Atlantic Gold corporate structure in May 2019, before its acquisition. Atlantic Gold is now a “St. Barbara Limited company.”

Keen contacted Rachel Boomer at Nova Scotia Environment, who informed him that 26 of the charges relate to alleged “silt releases” at the Moose River mine, three to “alleged violations of the company’s industrial approval,” and another three to “alleged violations of water withdrawal approval for exploration activities.”

None of the charges has been tested in court.

Court records obtained by the Examiner show that the alleged infractions occurred between February 8, 2018 and May 9, 2020, just two months after commercial production began at the Moose River mine.

Thirteen of the charges are for “releasing [a] substance into [the] environment in [an] amount, concentration or level in excess of approval level of regulations,” in contravention of Section 68(2) of the Environment Act.

Another 16 charges are for the failure “to comply with Terms and Conditions of an Approval,” in contravention of Section 158(f) of the Environment Act and Condition 15d and 7a of the Industrial Approval 2012-084244-05.

Those 29 charges are for alleged infractions on land parcels in and around Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy gold mine at Moose River, while three are for alleged offences in other locations.

Those three are for contravening a term or condition of an approval contrary to Section 158(f) of the Environment Act, including two at Seloam Brook at Fifteen Mile Stream about 30 km from the Moose River mine, and another at Jed Lake about five km northeast of the mine.

Fifteen Mile Stream is the site of the second of three additional gold mines that Atlantic Gold has proposed for the Eastern Shore. A poster at an open house the company hosted in March 2018 in Sheet Harbour said that part of Seloam Brook would be “re-routed and restored” as part of “mine development.”[1]

In an email, Nova Scotia Environment spokesperson Barbara MacLean told the Examiner that the three charges for alleged incidents at Seloam Brook and Jed Lake relate to water withdrawal approvals issued to Atlantic Mining NS “to support their exploration drilling programs” at those two locations.

Moose River mine “spill” not among the charges

The list of 32 charges does not include anything for January 3, 2019, the date that there was, in the words of Atlantic Gold’s manager of environment and permitting, James Millard, a “spill” at the Moose River mine. As the Halifax Examiner reported here, the spill:

… involved 380,000 litres of contaminant-laced slurry, which flowed from the processing plant where ore is crushed and gold extracted, and down a trench underneath the double-lined 500-metre pipe that should have been carrying the effluent to the tailings pond.

Millard said that the slurry flowed into a lined pond developed for leaks.

At the time, NSE spokesperson Adele Poirier told the Halifax Examiner that the conditions under which the spill occurred were “the best possible” ones for containment and cleanup, as the 350,000 to 400,000 litres that spilled “froze on the ground along the pipeline as it was spilling, making it easier to contain and remove.” Poirier said arsenic levels were much higher than background levels at the site and that most of the cleanup had been completed by March 2019.

Atlantic Gold’s rainfall problem

S&P Global’s Kip Keen also contacted “St Barbara spokesperson,” Atlantic Gold communications manager Dustin O’Leary, for comment on the environmental charges against Atlantic Gold.

Keen reported that according to O’Leary, the “incidents largely relate to heavy rainfall that created silty run-off from roads, overwhelming the storm water management system.”

Given that we are in a planetary climate emergency and scientists have warned us to expect more, and more extreme, weather events, O’Leary’s response blaming the incidents on heavy rainfall is curious.

It is also worrisome.

If Atlantic Gold’s storm water management system at its Moose River mine is inadequate for dealing with “heavy rainfall,” as O’Leary said it was, that hardly inspires confidence in other infrastructure such as the tailings management facility, which, should it breach, could contaminate  Scraggy Lake, and everything downstream from there.

British Columbia learned about the high risks tailings facility breaks the hard and expensive way.

Boom near Touquoy gold mine effluent outlet in Scraggy Lake. Photo: Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association

The amount of toxic tailings at the Moose River mine is expected to swell in coming years with the tailings that will result from processing ore from the three additional mines that Atlantic Gold has planned for the Eastern Shore. (The Halifax Examiner has reported on Atlantic Gold’s plans for these mines and its operations extensively — here, here, here, here and here.)

O’Leary’s claim about heavy rainfall causing most of the incidents is also of concern, in light of the industrial approval for Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy mine, which is very clear about the what the company should have done to prepare for precipitation.

Section 7a of the industrial approval states that the mine site:

… shall be developed and maintained to prevent siltation of the surface water which is discharged from the Site into the nearest watercourse. Additional controls shall be implemented if site runoff exceeds the discharge limits contained in Condition 7.

Section 15d on Liquid Effluent is explicit that:

The Site shall be developed and maintained to prevent surface water contaminants from being discharged into a watercourse, wetland, water resource, or beyond the property boundary …

The industrial approval also lists detailed criteria for the limits of contaminants, including at times when “high flow” would be expected, such as “spring freshets and storm events.”

In other words, Atlantic Gold is supposed to have developed the mine and all of its infrastructure to prevent environment problems related to “heavy rain” events.

What the weather records say

O’Leary’s claim that heavy rain can be “largely” blamed for alleged infractions might lead one to believe that on the dates those occurred, there really were some very heavy rains.

But what constitutes “heavy rain” these days in Nova Scotia?

Environment Canada issues heavy downpour warnings in Nova Scotia only “when 25 mm or more of rain is expected within one hour.” It issues warnings for heavy long duration rainfall in summer “when 50 mm of more of rain is expected within 24 hours,” or “when 75 mm or more of rain is expected within 48 hours.”

In winter, warnings about heavy long duration rains are issued only “when 25 mm or more of rain is expected within 24 hours.”

Rainfall records from Upper Stewiake — about 25 km from the Moose River mine and the closest weather station for which recent historical records appear to be available — show that on the dates for which the 32 environmental charges were laid, there were no rainfall events that involved 25 mm or more of rain within one hour, the threshold for a short duration rainfall warning from Environment Canada.

Rainfall exceeded 25 mm over 24 hours — the threshold for a long duration warning from Environment Canada — on just five of the dates that incidents occurred.[2]

Atlantic Gold Moose River mine site Photo: Joan Baxter

On 13 of the dates for the charges, less than 10 mm of rain fell in 24 hours, and on three of the dates there was no rain at all.

Prepared for climate change?

Two weeks after the Examiner reported on the environmental charges against Atlantic Gold and the complaint about the muddied brook, Alec Bruce of the Guysborough Journal reported that Atlantic Gold had sent an email to the Journal, saying that the company intended to make its operations “carbon neutral.” Bruce’s article quoted from the email:

“This is a massive endeavour that has already started with the incorporation of solar and battery storage technology at our Moose River operations [near Musquodoboit],” the subsidiary’s parent company, Australian mining giant St Barbara, stated. “[We have] committed Atlantic Gold operations to being carbon neutral by 2025.”

Bruce also quoted Atlantic Gold pledging that:

“In 2021, we will continue operating our successful and environmentally responsible operations at our Moose River Gold Mine and provide safe and responsible ways to engage with our staff with the goal of mutually exchanging information about our future projects.”

The company apparently neglected to mention the environmental charges.

Atlantic Gold’s self-touted efforts to makes its operations “climate neutral” would suggest a corporate concern about climate change, but such concern isn’t all that evident in its technical documents and operational plans.

Atlantic Gold’s May 2019 technical report on the Moose River Consolidated mine project, which includes Touquoy — as well as mines proposed for Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream and Cochrane Hill that are all currently undergoing review by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada — doesn’t mention climate change.

Climate change is discussed minimally in the original documents submitted in 2007 to Nova Scotia Environment by the original proponent of the Touquoy gold mine, DDV Gold, which was then “a wholly-owned, New Brunswick registered subsidiary of Atlantic Gold NL,” an “Australian resource company.”

The 2007 environmental assessment registration for the mine acknowledges the probability of increased rainfall, but downplays the risks of climate change in the region, and then seems only concerned about how they might affect mine operations, rather than the environment during those operations or after the mine closes:

On a national basis, Canada shows a warming and cooling pattern with a higher overall warming trend of approximately 1.1oC since 1895. The Atlantic Region, however, shows a warming trend from 1895 which peaked in the mid-1950s followed by a cooling trend in the 1990s. The overall warming trend of 0.4oC in Atlantic Canada since 1895 is not statistically significant. With respect to precipitation, the Atlantic Region shows an overall increasing trend in precipitation since 1948, with an increasing trend in the number of daily precipitation events above 20 mm and a very slightly increasing trend in the number of daily snowfall events above 15 cm (Lewis 1997). There are a number of planning, design and construction strategies intended to minimize the potential effects of the environment on the Project so that the risk of damage to the Project or interruption of service can be reduced to acceptable levels. Mitigation measures include, but are not limited to, designing and installing erosion and sediment control structures to accommodate appropriate levels of precipitation, and consideration of weather conditions when scheduling activities, including scheduling of activities to accommodate weather interruptions…

Heavy snowfalls and significant snow accumulation may have short term impact on the mine’s ability to remain open. In summary, meteorological conditions, including climate change, are not anticipated to significantly affect the operation of the mine over its proposed lifetime. [emphasis added]

The 2007 registration document also states that there was no need to build the tailings management facility to its final height during the initial construction because that would impose “an unnecessary financial burden on the Project which may affect economic viability.”

Instead, DDV claimed the tailings management facility could be built up over time, maintaining that:

The facility is being designed, and operating procedures planned, to manage extreme precipitation events; thus no further benefit is provided in terms of additional containment by having the dam built to final height from the start of operations. The dam is designed to manage inflows from the projected 1/100 year storm event in a wet year over a 24 hour period. The likelihood of the facility being exposed to such an event is minimized by the relatively short mine life. [emphasis added][3]

DDV Gold somehow avoided a federal government environmental assessment for the Moose River mine, but it was required to submit a Focus Report to Nova Scotia Environment.

The Focus Report provided climate data from the Middle Musquodoboit station, “based on climate normal published by Environment Canada for the period from 1971 to 2000.” This is what it had to say about annual precipitation based on those relatively old data:

Mean annual total precipitation is 1370 mm, which includes 165 cm of average snowfall per year (165 mm water equivalent). Highest precipitation generally occurs in the months of October and November, with lowest precipitation in the month of February. Measurable precipitation occurs on average of 164 days per year, with 141 days of measureable rainfall and 31 days of measurable snowfall. The extreme one day rainfall for the station is 173 mm on August 15, 1971 and extreme one day snowfall is 70 cm on February 8, 1981.

One of the Nova Scotia government requirements for the Focus Report was a “description of releases that could occur under normal conditions and ‘worst case scenario’ including tailings dam failures, extreme weather events and climate change influence.”

DDV claims that it “specifically addressed” this requirement in Section 4.5 of the Focus Report. However, there is no mention of either “extreme weather events” or “climate change influence” in Section 4.5.

In response to stakeholder “concerns” about the tailings management facility, DDV claims in the Focus Report that it is:

… designed to handle the in-flow from the 1/200 year storm [contradicting the 2007 registration document says 1/100 year storm] which is about 200 mm in 24 hours. To put this in perspective, Hurricane Juan dropped about 75 mm in 48 hours and the largest recorded precipitation event since 1950 was about 300 mm in the same period.

And yet, with rainfall amounts that didn’t come anywhere near those records, Atlantic Gold was apparently unable to prevent the alleged environmental infractions around the mine caused, according to the company’s communications manager Dustin O’Leary, “heavy rainfall.”

The Halifax Examiner contacted O’Leary to ask what other causes there were for the alleged contraventions, given that there was heavy rainfall on only a few of the dates they occurred, what provisions have been built into the mining operations (storm water management system and tailings management facility) to cope with increasing numbers of extreme weather events that are inevitable with climate change, and also about the three alleged contraventions that occurred outside the mine site.

O’Leary replied that, “as the matter is before the Nova Scotia Provincial Court, Atlantic Gold is unable to comment until the proceedings have come to a resolution.”

Atlantic Gold will have its day in the Dartmouth Provincial Court on January 26.

[1] There are discrepancies between information provided on posters at open houses that Atlantic Gold hosted in the early spring of 2018 for its proposed mines in Fifteen Mile Stream and Cochrane Hill, and information on the Atlantic Gold website. For example, the Atlantic Gold website claims that the Cochrane Hill mine would support “321 direct jobs” in the province, and provide $13 million in provincial government revenue and $700,000 for the municipal government annually. As well, the Cochrane Hill would “generate $24 million in value annually,” although for whom that value will be generated is not made clear. The Atlantic Gold website also claims that the Fifteen Mile Stream mine would create “321 jobs (ongoing)” with “$24.2 M [million] in annual revenues during operations,” which is also not clear. In any event, these figures appear to contradict what was said on posters at Atlantic Gold open house sessions held in 2018 for these two proposed mines. The poster shown at the open house for the Cochrane Hill project in 2018 stated that there would be 180 – 190 jobs at the mine over the seven years of its operations, and that the total amount of taxes it would generate – federal and provincial combined, was only $62.5 million, or just about $9 million a year, despite all the wear and tear it would cause on roads, and the environmental liabilities it would bring and leave behind. A poster at the March 2018 open house held in Sheet Harbour for the Fifteen Mile Stream mine, said that that mine would create 150 – 165 jobs during the six years of the mine’s operations, and generate $90.2 million in combined federal and provincial taxes over that period, so roughly $15 million a year, again, in spite of all the costs and environmental liabilities it would bring and bequeath to the public.

[2] The five dates with rainfall exceeding 25 mm were January 21, 2019 (25.6 mm), February 16, 2019 (25.7 mm), June 6, 2019 (39.6 mm), June 21, 2019 (63.9 mm), and November 12, 2019 (32 mm).

[3] At a Community Liaison Committee meeting on December 7, 2020, Atlantic Gold reported that they are seeking approval from Nova Scotia Environment for amendments that would allow for a 5% expansion for the waste rock pile, and raise the tailings dam by 1 – 2 metres to increase capacity. Atlantic Gold also reported that there had been two 2 positive cases of COVID-19 came from a drilling contractor, and the mine had been closed for 2 weeks for a deep cleaning, but that it continues to operate at full capacity. Atlantic Gold has continued to operate its gold mine throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns in Nova Scotia, as reported here.

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. The Atlantic Gold comms manager is so full of shit. Great to see the Examiner on this or this corporate malfeasance would be unreported. The province should be ashamed that this company gets away with this (and no doubt they will no matter the charges).

    Jobs, jobs, jobs.

  2. The clay extraction site is right in the middle of a clear cut that went right up to the legally required but
    sometimes inadequate 20m buffer left near the stream/wetland. So there is no vegetation left to slow down or catch the run-off across the clear cut. It’s clearly visible in satellite imagery that the actual vegetated buffer is of below average quality in structure because it’s an area of wetland with sparse trees/vegetation seen at this location 44.987002, -62.893614.

    Any civil engineer or soils scientist would have spotted this if tasked with it… so my guess is that nobody was tasked with it. It should have had a burm or some sort of catchment pond dug to catch this amount of runnoff. Hay bales won’t cut it with a high volume rain like we always, predictably, get several times every fall/winter.

    As an aside this type of nutrient run-off is happening in dozens of places around the province after full canopy removal cuts (clear cuts) every time it rains, in places where the buffers are not structurally able to stop the flow of run-off. As with so many things if nobody documents it, nothing gets done.

    Vaidya et al 2008 showed these impacts on a small scale, and they only sampled water bi-weekly. Their study didn’t capture the impacts of these high volume events and still showed changes in water chemistry.