By now, many people in Nova Scotia will have seen the Atlantic Gold ads on television, read words of self-praise from the company in newspaper opinion pieces, or received Atlantic Gold flyers in their mailboxes.
For the past month or so, Atlantic Gold has been blanketing the province with its propaganda.
As the Halifax Examiner reported here, there were hints in early February that the PR campaign was coming, when Nova Scotians started getting phone calls for a survey that seemed designed to produce positive PR for gold mining in the province, and more specifically, for its controversial plans for a fourth open pit gold mine in the province at Cochrane Hill, near Sherbrooke on the Eastern Shore.
The campaign seems to have started the first week of March, coincidentally the same week that several Atlantic Gold managers and its communications director were in Toronto to promote their company and its gold mining and exploration in Nova Scotia at the world’s premier mining party, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) 2020 convention.
Atlantic Gold’s communications director refused to answer questions from the Halifax Examiner at that event.
While the PDAC convention was winding up in Toronto on March 4, an opinion piece appeared in the Chronicle Herald in Halifax, extolling the purported virtues of Atlantic Gold. It was penned by Maryse Belanger, formerly president and COO of Atlantic Gold and now “president Americas” for the Australian company, St. Barbara, which last year acquired Atlantic Gold for $722 million, as reported here and here. (Belanger is probably best known to Nova Scotians as the woman who presided over the violent arrest of John Perkins by an RCMP officer at an Atlantic Gold public information session in May 2019.)
Around the same time as Belanger’s PR piece appeared, I began to hear from people around Sherbrooke who were receiving mail-outs from Atlantic Gold. The mail-out comes in an envelope emblazoned with the golden logo of St. Barbara, which invites recipients to “look inside to see how responsible mining is creating prosperous communities.”
Inside is a one-page “Community Update” that claims the Australian company is “deeply proud to create prosperity and opportunity for families in rural Nova Scotia,” and:
…Atlantic Gold works with communities to reduce our environmental impact while creating responsible and sustainable economic opportunity from our mining activity.
I put out a message on Facebook asking anyone who had received the mail-out to get in touch. Fifteen people in three counties — Antigonish, Pictou, and Guysborough — said they had, including a member of the Pictou Landing First Nation who said the mail-out landed there on March 17.
Around the same time as the flyers started flying, people began to contact me to let me know that Atlantic Gold’s ads were showing up in the evenings on CBC TV and CTV. One of these, also available on Youtube, paints a predictably rosy picture of Atlantic Gold and its Touquoy open pit gold mine in Moose River:
Atlantic Gold is proud to be an environmental steward while contributing to Nova Scotia’s economy. In Moose River, our operations are cleaning up more than 50,000 tonnes of unsafe tailings from historic mining. Without these efforts, the financial responsibility would fall to taxpayers. Atlantic Gold spends more than $21 million a year on environmental protection, ensuring a safe, responsible, prosperous Nova Scotia.
Someone also contacted me with a screenshot of an ad that popped up on her phone while she was playing a game, inviting her to learn more about “Atlantic Gold — proud to be an Environmental Steward.” When she clicked on it, she was directed to the Atlantic Gold website.
From the messaging in the ads and mail-outs, one might be forgiven for thinking Atlantic Gold was a charity, and not a company in the business of gold-digging and profit-maximizing.
The other video
But that Atlantic Gold PR video on Youtube that is meant to convince Nova Scotians that gold mining is good for them is not the only one on Youtube singing the praises of Atlantic Gold.
There is another video that is now available online, made for an entirely different audience.
This short film was featured at the PDAC Awards Gala, held on March 3 and the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, which cost $174.99 per person. At the gala, the PDAC handed out awards to celebrate “excellence in the global mining industry.”
One of those was the Viola R. MacMillan award, which went to the “Touquoy / Moose River Mine Development Team” — five guys being rewarded for “developing the Touquoy open pit mine and consolidating other gold deposits near Moose River in Nova Scotia after the gold potential of the area had been unrecognized for decades.”
The recipients were Bruce Hudgins and John Wightman, who did the drilling at Moose River in the early 2000s; Ronald Hawkes, who formed the company [DDV Gold] that later became Atlantic Gold; Wally Bucknell, who headed the project between 2003 and 2014; and Steven Dean, former president of Teck Resources, the “white knight” who “arrived on the scene in 2014 … looking for a gold development opportunity for his cash-rich company, Spur Resources.”
Spur and Atlantic Gold merged in 2014, and Dean became CEO of Atlantic Gold Corporation that, by 2019, involved a complex corporate structure involving six Canadian and two Australian companies.
Then in 2019, Australia’s St. Barbara Limited, with one underperforming gold mine in Australia and another controversy-plagued mine in Papua New Guinea, acquired Atlantic Gold with its mine at Moose River, and three more planned for the Eastern Shore at Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream, and Cochrane Hill on the banks of the St. Mary’s River, which has been generating strong opposition.
The video shown at the PDAC awards gala contains information that is absent from the canned public relations going out to Nova Scotians in TV ads and mail-outs.
We learn, for example, that the success of the Touquoy mine is due, in part, to the “strong support” that the company received from “all levels of government.” The video doesn’t elaborate on the nature of that support. But, as reported here, the NDP government of Darrell Dexter did a huge favour for DDV Gold when it took the highly unusual step of invoking a vesting order to force the Higgins family to hand over a piece of their family’s land to the company for the mine.
In addition, the province allowed the company to displace a provincial park and cairn that marked the spot of the 1936 Moose River rescue. Both were relocated to the entrance of the Touquoy mine.
There are also many questions, which were discussed here, about the environmental assessment process for the Moose River mine. It is still not clear why the project was not subjected to a federal environmental assessment (EA), or a Class II provincial one that is more stringent and takes longer than the Class I EA, which the province’s very first open pit gold mine underwent.
Before its acquisition by St. Barbara, Atlantic Gold was registered on a Canadian stock exchange and was thus obliged to submit annual ESTMA (Extractive Sector Transparency Measures Act) reports to the federal government. In its 2017 ESTMA report, Atlantic Gold said that for its Touquoy mine it paid $0 in royalties and $0 in taxes. In 2018, it again paid $0 in taxes to any level of government, and only $1.18 million in royalties.
This seems a rather paltry sum for an annual gold production rate of 95,000 to 105,000 ounces from the Touquoy mine, which, at today’s high gold price ($2,187 per ounce, although the price is volatile given the COVID-19 crisis), is worth between about $208 and $230 million.
The narrator of the video also tells viewers that today the Moose River mine is a “successful, low-cost operation,” and that there is potential to expand the giant open pit mine, because of “three other deposits on the property.”
While you won’t find this information in any of the PR materials emanating from Atlantic Gold, in the PDAC video profiling the men behind the Moose River mine, former Atlantic Gold CEO Steven Dean has this to say about the company’s return on investment:
From 2014 until the date of sale of the company, we achieved a 1,129% return over that four-and-a-half-year period. That was a really, really big achievement by our team and it’s something that we’re very proud of.
So Atlantic Gold isn’t lying when it says that it is “creating prosperous communities.” It just neglects to say that the real prosperity is being created for its investor community.
With the price of gold already very high and, according to some analysts, set to continue soaring as the COVID-19 crisis deepens, Atlantic Gold should have no shortage of funds to continue its propaganda campaign in the province.
Untangling Atlantic Gold spin
I’m not going to try to address all that is missing or highly misleading in the messaging in the Atlantic Gold mail-outs and the television advertisements.
First, it would mean giving more — and free — publicity to Atlantic Gold’s PR messages. Secondly, it would take an extremely long article — even longer than the ones I usually write, and far too long for any reader to want to wade through at a time like this.
Also, the Halifax Examiner has already examined — and found wanting — the phone survey that Atlantic Gold cites in the mail-out and that Maryse Belanger quotes in her opinion piece (and which the Mining Association of Nova Scotia dutifully repeats on Twitter), to “conclude that a clear majority of Nova Scotians support gold mining in our province.”
The survey, according to two people who contacted me about it, came with prescribed answers and allowed no room for them to express — or at least have recorded — their opinions.
But some of Atlantic Gold’s claims should not go unchallenged.
Remediating old tailings … and creating lots of new ones
One of the more audacious claims Atlantic Gold makes is that it is saving Nova Scotians money by cleaning up historic gold mine tailings at Moose River. It points to the government’s plan to spend $48 million to remediate two historic gold mine sites in the province — at Moose River Gold Mines in HRM and at Goldenville in Guysborough County. (The Halifax Examiner has reported on this here and here.)
To put this in context, Atlantic Gold had to do something with the historic gold mine tailings — which are laced with mercury and arsenic — because they were in the way of its new open pit gold mine. As Geological Survey of Canada’s Michael Parsons has told the Examiner, the best place to find gold in the province is in old mining areas. Moose River is just one of 64 historic gold mine districts in the province.
Atlantic Gold boasts that it has remediated “over 50,000 tonnes” of historic tailings “unrelated” to its operations, by which it means it is not working with the tailings. But that doesn’t mean that the remediation work is some kind of charitable act. The Industrial Approval issued by Nova Scotia Environment for the mine prohibits Atlantic Gold from reprocessing historic tailings at the site for the purpose of recovering gold that may be in them without permission from the department.
In addition, the 2012 study published by Michael Parsons and his colleagues shows that the mass of ore crushed at Moose River during previous gold rushes is 195,720 tonnes, which means Atlantic Gold has remediated just a fraction of what is there.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that the people of Nova Scotia would have been paying for remediation of tailings at Moose River any time soon.
The province is only now starting to assess the environmental legacy of historic gold mining, and the choice of Goldenville and Montague Mines as priority areas for remediation have to do with the immediate danger they pose to people living around them in the case of Montague, as well as to those who use the sites for recreation, and the scale of the problem, as in the case of Goldenville, where there are more than half a million tonnes of historic toxic tailings.
Moose River is not among the fourteen districts where historic mine tailings were studied intensively by Parsons and his colleagues in the early 2000s. According to a 2015 government review by J. Drage, no human health risk assessments have been done at the historic mine tailings sites, which would allow the province to prioritize remediation plans for them.
Furthermore, at this point, the province has no plans to remediate any historic mine tailings on private land.
So no matter how it is spinning the message, Atlantic Gold isn’t doing this tailings remediation work out of the goodness of its corporate heart.
The company has been mandated to do so by its Industrial Approval (IA) for the Moose River mine. The IA stipulates that Atlantic Gold was to fully “delineate” historic gold mine tailings at the mine site, “develop a Historic Mines Tailings Management Plan,” and describe remediation plans for all historic tailings.
The IA also states that Atlantic Gold is to undertake a technical study of the “potential mobility of mercury into the receiving environment” and that final disposal be in the mine’s Tailings Management Facility.
In an email to the Nova Scotia Department of Environment last week, I requested a copy of the Historic Mine Tailings Management Plan, and asked how many of the historic gold mine tailings that Atlantic Gold has remediated were on Crown land leased to the company, or on private land, and how the mercury from historic tailings has been contained. I also asked if Atlantic Gold had done any reprocessing of historic tailings to extract gold, and if any additional monitoring had been done on the risks of mercury and arsenic they contained.
NSE spokesperson Rachel Boomer replied that I will need to file a Freedom of Information request for the Historic Mine Tailings Management Plan. She said that the historic tailings are not being reprocessed for gold to date, and that Atlantic Gold has been placing them in the tailings management facility, which has an impermeable layer.
Boomer also said that one of two areas of historic tailings is the 280 hectares of Crown land leased to Atlantic Gold, while the other is on Atlantic Gold property.
So Atlantic Gold is being seriously disingenuous in its PR materials when it conflates the work the province is doing on Crown land at Goldenville and Montague Mines to deal with historic mine tailings, and what the company is doing at Moose River with historic tailings on its own property and to get at gold on Crown land.
In the meantime, it’s worthwhile noting that for those relatively small amounts of historic tailings Atlantic Gold may be containing in its tailings management facility, it is producing vast amounts of new tailings. As reported here, for every ounce of gold that Atlantic Gold produces at Touquoy, it has to remove nearly 70 tonnes of ore and waste. The vast quantities of tailings that are left after the ore is crushed and processed to extract the gold will need to be stored, monitored and managed by Nova Scotians long, long after Atlantic Gold has closed up shop, completed its “reclamation” of the site (based on its reclamation plan that is not available, even through a freedom of information request), and said farewell to Nova Scotia.
No matter how they are stored or “remediated,” mine tailings are (just about) forever.
Generating revenue vs paying taxes
The Atlantic Gold mail-out and the opinion piece by Maryse Belanger provide a long list of what might look like impressive dollar amounts that Atlantic Gold’s operations will “generate” in “value” for the province, or “revenue” for the provincial and municipal governments.
Nowhere does Atlantic Gold say what it will actually pay to any level of government in taxes and royalties.
As reported here, when I emailed Atlantic Gold’s communications director Dustin O’Leary to ask for those figures, he thanked me for my interest in Atlantic Gold’s operations, but said, “our company is declining to participate in the article(s) you are writing.”
Out of duty — but not optimism, given his incommunicative record — I emailed O’Leary to ask him about Atlantic Gold’s public relations campaign, what prompted it, how many mail-outs were sent, how long it will last, and what kind of feedback it was receiving.
He replied with his standard refrain (and one I think I may one day frame as a prime example of how not to communicate); O’Leary wrote:
At this time, Atlantic Gold has decided not to participate in the article you are writing.