Photo (contributed) taken August 27 of the tailings facility at Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy open pit gold mine showing possible leak.

Latest update: On Monday morning (Aug. 30), we published an update (below) with a statement from Dustin O’Leary, spokesperson for Atlantic Gold and Atlantic Mining NS, subsidiaries of the Australian company St Barbara that owns the open pit Touquoy gold mine in Moose River, HRM. O’Leary stated that “there is no leak of any kind occurring” at the mine’s tailing facility, despite photos that have been circulating that show a pool of orange liquid outside the tailings impoundment.

Since then we heard back from Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change, and also from Dr. Steven Emerman, an independent mining consultant and a retired former associate professor at Utah Valley University who has authored over 70 peer-reviewed publications on hydrology and geophysics. Both of their responses have been added here.

The Examiner had asked Emerman for his interpretation of what is in the photos of the tailings facility at the Touquoy  gold mine, what he thinks the orange pool outside the tailings dam may contain and what its source may be, and whether it indicates possible seepage or a leak from the tailings facility.

Emerman replied:

Although I am open to other interpretations, my initial impression is that water from the tailings pond is leaking through the base of the tailings dam and is being pumped back into the tailings pond. The orange coloration is worrisome to me. If the orange coloration is due to fine mud particles, then the seepage could be washing solid particles out of the tailings dam. This process is called internal erosion (or piping) and could cause a loss of structural integrity of the tailings dam and an eventual catastrophic failure of the dam.

Based on the above possible interpretation, this matter requires the immediate attention of the mining company.

An alternate interpretation of the orange color is that iron or other metals are precipitating in the seepage water. This is worrisome because it could mean that acid mine drainage or toxic metals are being introduced into the environment. Note that simply pumping the water back into the tailings pond is not preventing the seepage of water into the subsurface. However, the possibility of a catastrophic failure of the tailings dam is much more worrisome and requires much more immediate attention.

The Examiner also asked Emerman about the company’s statements that as part its mine water management at the Touquoy mine in Moose River, they are “required to collect surface water – including rainfall runoff – that gathers on the site and channel that water to our tailings management facility,” and that the photos show “water that has gathered in the collection ditch alongside the tailings facility.”

Emerman’s response:

I don’t understand this. A channel for collecting surface water should not be running directly along the base of the tailings dam. Such a channel could result in mechanical erosion of the base of the dam. Also, the presence of the channel could keep the base of the dam permanently wet.

Nor is Emerman satisfied with Atlantic Gold’s statement that the “orange discolouration shown in the photo is a result of the local ground conditions and is naturally occurring.” His comment:

That’s possible, but much more explanation is needed “Local ground conditions” is not an adequate explanation.

Emerman says it is “certainly true” that the pump is part of the system pumping the water collecting in the ditch into the tailings facility, as Dustin O’Leary told the Examiner. However, Emerman said that doesn’t address the problem:

If internal erosion is occurring, simply pumping the muddy water back into the tailings pond will not slow the progress toward catastrophic failure. It might be necessary to construct a buttress at the base of the dam or take other remedial actions. As I said above, if toxic water is leaking through the dam, then pumping the water back into the tailings pond is not preventing seepage into the subsurface at the point of leakage.

O’Leary also told the Examiner that third-party experts have reviewed analysis of the discolouration and confirmed that the “colour is not harmful” [emphasis mine] and can be found in many natural environments like wetlands. Emerman said this was possible, but also said much more explanation was needed:

“Can be found in many natural environments” is not an adequate explanation. By the way, who are these third-party experts ? Is that a secret? In what sense, are they “third parties?”

As for O’Leary’s statement that Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change “has been aware of and directed this process since the initial build of the tailings management facility,” Emerman noted:

It’s not clear to me what “process” Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change has been aware of and has been directing.

The Examiner also asked Emerman if such a channel that appears in the photo is a normal feature outside a tailings management facility at a gold mine. His reply:

A constructed channel should not be running along the base of the dam. However, what I see in the photo does not look at all like a constructed channel.

There are gold mines that collect water from the watershed and transfer it to the tailings pond for storage so that it can later be used in the mining operation. This is no longer a recommended practice because it increases the amount of water stored behind the tailings dam. Please see a report of mine on this subject. My report relates to the proposed Volta Grande gold mine in the Amazon by the Canadian mining company Belo Sun.

Further, in his experience, does he think the orange discolouration something that is “naturally occurring”? It is possible that it shows acid mine drainage, as author and co-founder of MiningWatch Canada Joan Kuyek suggested to the Examiner after she saw the photo? Emerson replied that it is possible the colouration shows acid mine drainage. And it is also possible that it is naturally occurring.

However, he said, “I would first like to dismiss other possibilities, which are the transport of fine mud from the tailings dam and the precipitation of iron or other metals related to the mining process.”

Emerman also said that regulators should be looking closely at the situation tailings facility, and that it is a cause for concern.

•          •          •

The Examiner also sent a list of questions to Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change:

  1. Is the channel outside the TMF where the orange liquid shows up in the photo (attached) an actual design feature that has always been there, intentionally put there to collect rainwater and surface water, and approved by NSE and Climate Change?
  2. Has Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change directed this process of catching surface and rainwater in a channel outside and pumping it into the TMF since the facility was built?
  3. Has Environment and Climate Change seen other instances of orange discolouration of water in the channel outside the TMF? If so, when? Why is it happening now?
  4. What are the natural processes that cause it?
  5. Has Environment and Climate Change consulted with Atlantic Gold’s third-party experts about the discolouration (what the orange liquid contains, and the methodology of the analysis that shows it is not harmful)? If so, is the department satisfied this orange liquid is totally harmless?
  6. Acid rock drainage / acid mine drainage “is the runoff produced when water comes in contact with exposed rocks containing sulfur-bearing minerals that react with water and air to form sulfuric acid and dissolved iron. This acidic run-off dissolves heavy metals including copper, lead, and mercury which pollute ground and surface water.” Images of acid mine drainage show it is often orange, also often toxic. It is caused by the outflow of acidic water from metal mines or coal mines, and is also described as a natural process. Can Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change say whether this orange discolouration in the photos of the TMF at Touquoy could be linked in any way to acid mine drainage?

On Monday evening, Nova Scotia Spokesperson Tracy Barron sent this reply:

Our staff visited the Touquoy site Monday, Aug. 30, and found no evidence that material was discharged to the environment. Discoloured liquid was found in the seepage containment pool and was being pumped back into the main tailings management facility, which is how the facility was designed to operate. The Touquoy industrial approval is here: https://novascotia.ca/nse/ia/pdfdocs/2012-084244-08.pdf. The feature consisting of the seepage collection ditches and ponds has been a requirement since the approval was issued. Appendix C (Page 50) of the approval shows a map labelling the locations of this system, and the terms and conditions located in Section 17, Tailings Management, include a requirement to pump any material from the seepage containment system back to the main tailings pond, in addition to a requirement to monitor for the rate of seepage and sampling requirements. Our staff member took several samples around the pond and will submit those to the lab for analysis. It will take about two weeks to get lab results back.

From this response, it would appear that the orange liquid is in a containment pool for “seepage” and that the discoloured liquid has seeped from the tailings facility, as it is being pumped “back” into the main tailings facility. This appears to contradict Atlantic Gold’s contention that the liquid is collected “surface water – including rainfall runoff – that gathers on the site.”

The Examiner has also sent a list of follow-up questions to Atlantic Gold spokesperson Dustin O’Leary and will continue to update this story as answers are received.

•          •          •

Update: late last night (Aug. 30) the Examiner heard back from spokesperson Dustin O’Leary from Atlantic Gold. He wrote:

I confirm this is an image of the Touquoy mine tailings facility and that there is no leak of any kind occurring. Here are some additional facts regarding the follow-up questions you sent:

  1. As part of St Barbara’s mine water management, we are required to collect surface water – including rainfall runoff – that gathers on the site and channel that water to our tailings management facility.
  2. The photo shows water that has gathered in the collection ditch alongside the tailings facility.
  3. The orange discolouration shown in the photo is a result of the local ground conditions and is naturally occurring.
  4. The pump is a part of the system, pumping the water collecting in the ditch into the tailings facility.
  5. Third-party experts have reviewed analysis of the discolouration and have confirmed that the colour is not harmful and can be found in many natural environments like wetlands.
  6. Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change has been aware of and directed this process since the initial build of the tailings management facility.

We have asked for more information and have asked an independent expert for their opinion, and will further update this article when we have those responses.

•          •          •

On August 27, a person who wishes to remain anonymous took aerial photos of the tailings facility at Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy open pit gold mine in Moose River, Nova Scotia, and sent them to Scott Beaver, president of the St. Mary’s River Association and part of the No Open Pit Excavation (NOPE) citizens’ group that opposes the company’s proposed gold mine at Cochrane Hill near Sherbrooke, one of three new mines the company has planned for Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore.

According to Beaver, who has been sharing the photos on social media, they show a tailings leak at the Touquoy mine, about 70 kilometres east of Halifax’s Stanfield International Airport.

“You are looking at a leak in the tailings dam wall,” writes Beaver in an email. “There is not yet any evidence that this has been reported as of yet. You can see in the pictures that they are using a small pump to pump the toxic water back into the tailings Impoundment. This is disturbing!”

Photo (contributed) taken August 27 of tailings dam at Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy gold mine in Moose River, HRM, showing possible leak of orange effluent and what looks like a small pump with a hose adjacent to it.
Photo (contributed) showing location of alleged leak at Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy gold mine tailings facility in Moose River, HRM. Tailings dam in the foreground, with tailings effluent outlet and Scraggy Lake in upper part of photo.

In a Facebook post, Beaver states:

The proposed tailings dam for Cochrane Hill is a disaster waiting to happen. The dam proposed at Cochrane Hill is 70 meters high, running along the nine-mile woods road for about 3 km, compared to a 40 meter high dam at BC’s mount Polley mine disaster site. Leaks like this one at the Moose River Touquoy mine operated by Atlantic Gold sure sends shivers down my spine!

Atlantic Gold says there are “no leaks or breaches”

The Halifax Examiner contacted Nova Scotia Environment to ask if Atlantic Gold, or its subsidiary Atlantic Mining NS that operates the Touquoy mine, had reported a leak at its tailings facility. Spokesperson Rachel Boomer replied:

The provincial Department of Environment and Climate Change has not received any information about a potential leak or spill at the Touqouy Gold Mine. Our staff will look into it.

I strongly encourage you, or any member of the public, to share any information about a potential leak.

On Saturday night, the Examiner also sent questions to Dustin O’Leary, communications manager for Atlantic operations of the Australian company, St Barbara Ltd, which owns Atlantic Gold:

  1. Has there been a leak in the tailings facility at the Touquoy mine?
  2. If so, when did it happen, how was it discovered, and what is the composition of the orange liquid that shows up outside the tailings dam?
  3. What is the cause of the leak?
  4. How much effluent leaked? Is it being pumped through the tailings dam back into the facility?
  5. Did any of the liquid leak beyond the outside canal where it appears to have collected outside the tailings dam?
  6. What is being done to remediate the leak and prevent more?
  7. Has Atlantic Mining NS notified Nova Scotia Environment about the leak?
  8. If there is no leak, can you please tell me what that orange liquid is and why it and a pump are clearly outside the tailings dam in the photos?
Atlantic Gold communications manager Dustin O’Leary at the ill-fated public information session in Sherbrooke, NS, in May 2019 at which John Perkins was violently arrested. Photo: Joan Baxter

O’Leary sent this reply:

I have confirmed with our General Manager of Operations that our tailings management facility at the Touquoy mine is operating normally and in full accordance with regulatory requirements. It was most recently inspected on Saturday evening as part of our daily inspection regime, with no leaks or breaches of any nature.  We can therefore confirm that no materials from the tailings management facility have entered the environment around the mine.

To provide further context — in addition to the inspection regime by our own team, the Touquoy mine’s tailings management facility has a third-party engineer of record for the build and ongoing construction that takes place. Additionally, Touquoy employs the services of third-party tailings facility experts called an Independent Tailings Review Board (ITRB) who inspect the facility twice a year to ensure its ongoing stability and work with our team to continuously improve our overall management of tailings on site.

One of St Barbara’s corporate commitments is to respect the environment and we take that commitment seriously. We respect the role of Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change and proactively work with them on all matters relating to environmental management.

In the absence of having the photo you referred to, we are unable to speak to what was viewed by the individual that captured the photo or its validity.

The Examiner then sent O’Leary one of the three photos, and asked what it showed, what the orange liquid outside the tailings dam was, if not a leak. Today, Sunday, O’Leary replied that he would be sending a reply. When that is received, we will update this article.

Bad timing

The last time there was an effluent spill at the Moose River mine was in January 2019. As the Examiner reported in March that year, that leak allowed 380,000 litres of contaminant-laced slurry to flow 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. At the time, Atlantic Gold’s manager of environment and permitting, James Millard, told the Examiner that the company had “worked with an independent consultant” and that all the material, which contained arsenic and cyanide, had been excavated and placed in the tailings pond.

The timing of these new photos that appear to show something amiss with the Touquoy mine tailings dam is not good for Atlantic Gold.

In July, the company applied to the province for permission to make modifications at its Moose River gold mine, which is coming to the end of its life, and where it wants to process the ore from three new mines it has proposed for eastern Nova Scotia – at Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream, and Cochrane Hill. Among other modifications, Atlantic Gold is seeking approval from Nova Scotia Environment to store tailings in the exhausted pit at the Touquoy mine starting in 2022. (The Examiner reported on this here.)

Atlantic Mining NS, the subsidiary of St Barbara’s Atlantic Gold that operates the open pit Touquoy gold mine in Moose River, is seeking approval to store mine tailings in this pit once it has been exhausted. Photo: Joan Baxter

Nova Scotia’s minister of environment and climate change — whoever that will be after Nova Scotia Premier-designate Tim Houston’s new cabinet is sworn in on Monday, August 30 — is due to decide whether to grant approval for the modifications on or before September 5.

On September 9, Atlantic Gold will again be in court on 32 environmental provincial charges and on three federal ones. The company has appeared in court to enter pleas on the provincial charges on four previous occasions, and been granted an adjournment every time.

Nor are things looking all that rosy for St Barbara lately. As Tim Bousquet reported on August 27, St Barbara, which purchased Atlantic Gold in 2019 for $722 million, has just announced an annual loss of US$128 in the first half of 2021, compared with a profit in 2020, and according to Rhiannon Hoyle in the Wall Street Journal, an “impairment loss against assets totaling A$349.3 million, mostly related to the to the Atlantic Gold business.”

Although the company has also had to suspend production at its Papua New Guinea gold mine because of the death of a worker and a leaking deep sea tailings pipe, the company appears to be blaming the loss on Nova Scotian and Canadian regulators. In an article in Kitco, Vladimir Basov writes:

The company said that the impairment largely relates to the delay in commencement of mining due to permitting issues. It reflects an assessment based on best effort estimates relying on an incomplete Beaver Dam Feasibility Study for capital estimates and best effort estimates on the timing of permits required for each of the three satellite operations: Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream and Cochrane Hill.

St Barbara noted that there has been a delay in the issuing of permits by the Nova Scotia provincial government regulators and Canadian federal government regulators for all three satellite operations, which is the primary driver of the delay in first production from these future operations.

It also looks as if St Barbara intends to ramp up pressure on the Nova Scotia and Canadian governments to approve its new mines, as Basov writes:

St Barbara reiterated that it is committed to working with the Nova Scotian provincial and Canadian federal government regulators to expedite the permit approval process.

In addition, St Barbara said it has promoted Meryl Jones, St Barbara’s Head of Business Development, to the role of President Americas to lead efforts in North America to accelerate permitting and construction of future operations. Meryl will be relocating to Nova Scotia in the near future.

On Facebook where he published the photos showing what looks like an effluent leak, Scott Beaver alleges that while “Atlantic Gold are crying poor” about cost overruns, they are “using the equivalent of a garden pump to fix a breach in the main tailings pond that threatens Eastern Shore wilderness and rivers, streams and lakes.

And, adds Beaver in his no-holds-barred post:

Recent belly-aching performances about the increasing costs of extracting gold out of several gold claims on Nova Scotia’s pristine Eastern Shore deserve an academy award for both the drama and the significant risk that they are hiding in the news. Reporting that it is costing more, $200 million plus, and that the conditions for permitting are more complicated than expected are evidence that money and not morality is a root problem that is hiding what could be irreversible damage to some of the province’s last frontiers. Our wild, untouched and rugged undiscovered Eastern Shore!

It all leaves one wondering how they could be off by hundreds of millions and what have they hidden in pursuit of cheap gold at the expense of Nova Scotia’s environment. In fairness Nova Scotia should be welcoming industries that make a positive impact and live up to the often quoted, “leaving future generations some thing as good or better than we started with.” It is hard to reconcile that with canyon sized scars, mountains of potentially toxic overburden piles and man-made impoundments of toxic tailings water.

The facts get in the way of the truth and in this case money. Many international miners would find it not feasible to operate in Nova Scotia if they had to meet the moral standard of protecting and preserving the environment both as they operate and after they exhaust their claims. They operate large scale mines which are impressive and only to outdone by the fancy public relations and lobbying which are designed to feed false project feasibility to shareholders.

The Touquoy Gold Mine, which is nearing its end of operations on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore is a perfect example. Located in Moose River this massive watershed of lakes, ponds, streams, rivers and wetlands are clearly at risk from this mine’s toxic tailings pond. The operation poses a clear risk of incalculable proportions.

And just to be clear, tailing ponds are not 100% leak proof and the mining industry history is littered with disastrous breaches vulnerable to changing climate and weather. Many in 3rd world impoverished back water regions of the world starving for economic development and vulnerable to resource and environmental exploitation. Surely a site only a twenty-minute flight from our region’s capital, Halifax, deserves better!

Joan Kuyek, author of the 2019 book, Unearthing justice: how to protect your community from the mining industry, and co-founder of MiningWatch Canada, points out that she is not a technical expert on tailings. However, after looking at the photo of the Touquoy mine, she writes that it does appear to show a leak with acid mining drainage, which can cause serious pollution around mining sites even long after they close, posing “severe threats to ecological systems.”

John Perkins of the citizens’ group Sustainable Northern Nova Scotia (SuNNS), which opposes gold exploration and mining on Warwick Mountain in the French River watershed that supplies Tatamagouche with its water, tells the Examiner that a tailings facility leak should not surprise anyone:

Back in February 2018, SuNNS presented a dire warning [on page 10 of its presentation] of the likelihood of this very thing happening when we were asking Municipal Council of the County of Colchester to protect Warwick Mountain from gold mining. What we see at Touquoy is this danger arriving in Nova Scotia. If this is not startling enough, you should visit workdminetailingsfailures.org for reams more evidence. I hope the new Nova Scotia government will act on this immediately by halting all production and requiring an investigation as well as say no to future gold mines.

The Examiner has contacted several mining experts for an interpretation of the photos, and will report on any responses it receives.


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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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6 Comments

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  1. Professor Emerman’s comments indicate so clearly why it is necessary for a much more responsive and transparent Dept. of Environment.

    The last pulp effluent pipe break was investigated by the Dept. of Environment and requests for a final report always produced the same answer- ‘we’re not finished our investigation.’ Years to investigate and report on that leak; is there a final report on that yet!

    Months and months of reports of improper underground mine operations at Westray and an investigator who ‘wrote the company up’ but a government that never acted to prevent a disaster.
    Perhaps the Dept. of Environment should be required to name the chief investigator along with publishing contact information of same whenever there is a possible breach of tailings ponds, rock dusting measures, improper handling of harmful construction debris,….

    The legacy media has not measured up in its reporting of such things. The Examiner; the Spectator; All Nova Scotia and others do not shrink from their responsibility to not only report but to delve deeply and to persist. It is this sort of media that is making a difference. Thanks again Joan Baxter!

  2. This morning on Twitter…
    Jim Milne @milneice · 9h
    Replying to @BigJMcC @NS_Energy_Mines and 7 others
    But don’t believe the photographs, @AtlanticGoldCo says there’s no leak.

    Mining Association of Nova Scotia
    @MiningNS·4h
    Replying to @milneice @BigJMcC and 7 others
    Joan Baxter has her facts wrong. The picture with her article shows surface water being pumped INTO the tailings facility, not leaking from it.
    The orange discoloration is naturally occurring and due to ground conditions in the area.
    There is no leak or enviro issue.
    #nspoli

    1. Great.
      If Atlantic Gold & Mining NS are so confident, let’s have 3rd-party scientists (read: not anonymous ones) and the Department of Environment do a comprehensive investigation in the area immediately and thoroughly report all of their findings to the public. It’s time to get to the bottom of this. Dustin O’Leary’s word is not enough.

  3. What a disaster that appears to not be in waiting any longer.

    No future mining should be allowed in Nova Scotia.