Saint Mary’s University professor Linda Campbell calls the announcement about a “five-year partnership” between the university and Atlantic Gold “big news.”
Not everyone is pleased, however. Some who have been in touch with the Halifax Examiner have called it “greenwashing,” “terribly disappointing,” and “corporate capture of our universities.” One uses words not suitable for use here. But we’ll get to that.
First, a look at the “partnership,” what it entails, and what the announcement made in a press release on March 2, 2021 does — and also doesn’t — tell us.
The press release comes from Saint Mary’s University (SMU) and Atlantic Gold, which was acquired by the Australian company St. Barbara in 2019 for $722 million. It states that the funding is for a project that Campbell leads “to use its proven expertise from previous studies of former mine sites to develop a low-cost remediation strategy.” The press release continues:
This new strategy is designed to support the natural recovery of wetlands and shallow water environments impacted by 100-year-old contaminated tailings.
A proof-of-concept study of a new method, which will use a thin layer of a reactive material, is promising in its ability to limit risks of legacy gold mine tailings without compromising wetland function. It is this approach that is being investigated by the research team.
The scope of the damage to the environment from abandoned gold mines is wide, encompassing 300 abandoned mines across the province in both remote areas and backyards. Contamination from the arsenic and mercury used in historic gold mining can adversely affect human health and present severe environmental contamination risks.
“The funding is part of a new five-year partnership between Saint Mary’s University and Atlantic Gold with the first payment of $200,000 being delivered late in 2020,” says the press release.
The announcement also contains some predictable — and empty — corporate speak from St Barbara CEO Craig Jetson, the kind of rhetoric that would have us believe that a gold mining company that blasts immense craters into the earth and leaves behind mountains of toxic tailings in facilities that need to be monitored and maintained for centuries, cares “about the environment and the planet.”
What the press release doesn’t contain, interestingly enough, is how much money is actually involved over the five years.
Turns out it is $200,000 a year, which I found out by asking Linda Campbell herself.
$1 million over five years is hardly a gold mine
While any amount of money no doubt looks good to cash-strapped researchers these days, $1 million over five years looks a paltry sum for the company, considering the $722 million price paid for Atlantic Gold, which has only one mine operating in Nova Scotia at this point — the Touquoy mine in Moose River.
Gold produced at the Touquoy mine in 2018 would have had a value of about $205 million, in 2019 about $172 million, and in 2020 about $241 million.
It’s also worth recalling that except for a few hundred thousand dollars in property taxes that Atlantic Gold pays to HRM, according to “ESTMA” reports it must submit to Natural Resources Canada under the Extractive Sector Transparency Measures Act, Atlantic Gold paid $0 taxes to the provincial or the federal government in 2018 and 2019. The 2020 ESTMA report has not yet been submitted.
There was, not surprisingly, no word in the press release about the upcoming court case where Atlantic Mining NS is facing 32 environmental charges for incidents at and around its Moose River mine, which the Examiner has reported on here, here, and here.
The press release didn’t say where the work would be done. However, Campbell helped fill in some of the gaps for the Examiner.
In an email, she writes that the research is “at the stage of benchtop testing and development of the remediation application for wetlands. All of our lab work is currently being done at SMU.”
“We are working to identify impacted and reference wetlands with the appropriate characteristics for sample collection, and in a few years, eventual outdoors mesocosm [experimental system in the natural environment under controlled conditions] testing,” says Campbell. “We are not going to remediate any wetlands, but rather test the feasibility and success of our remediation approach.”
In an email, Dustin O’Leary, communications manager for Atlantic Mining NS, another St Barbara company and the one that operates the Atlantic Gold mine at Moose River, confirms that Campbell’s work will be “focused on laboratory studies.”
“However, as part of our ongoing partnership, our staff will work with Dr Campbell and her team to provide access to our project sites if it will aid in the team’s research when field studies are required,” O’Leary adds.
SMU communications manager Cale Loney tells the Examiner that, “There are currently three people working on the project, with team size expected to fluctuate as the project progresses.”
Campbell’s application for government funding was turned down
The Halifax Examiner has reported extensively on gold mining in Nova Scotia, past and present, and Linda Campbell has been a particularly important source for several Examiner stories dealing with mercury and historic mine tailings, given her expertise developed not just here in Canada but around the world.
Campbell provided invaluable input for articles about the mercury pollution in the province, including at the site of Canso Chemicals on Abercrombie Point, adjacent to the Northern Pulp mill.
In 2019, Campbell accompanied me to Montague Gold Mines in Dartmouth for this article looking at the toxic legacy of previous gold rushes in Nova Scotia. She also contributed much to the three-part Port Wallace Gamble series (here, here, and here), about how the Montague Mines tailings are affecting a large residential development project proposed for the area.
As the Examiner reported here, in 2018, Campbell received $142,000 from the provincial government’s Mineral Resources Development Fund (MRDF) 2018 – 2019 for research into wetlands in the province that were highly contaminated by historic mine tailings. That same article also reported that when Campbell applied again for MRDF funds in 2019 so she could continue the work, her application was turned down.
The Examiner reported at the time that:
She [Campbell] says she’s been “knocking on doors” to try to convince various government departments and levels of governments of how serious the issue is, but has not been able to secure funding.
Campbell estimates that the work required for a site like Montague would cost about $500,000, and would include paying people fair wages, lab analysis, mapping, and data collection. This would then be a pilot site for the entire province.
The article also noted that 2019 — when Campbell was turned down for funds — was the same year that the MRDF was increased from $800,000 to $1.5 million, an announcement that was made, ironically, at Saint Mary’s University. As the Examiner reported here, the MRDF Advisory Council is made up of five men, three of whom represent the mining industry.
Although Campbell was refused funds from MRDF in 2019-2020, the same was not true for mining companies and male prospectors.
Among others, Transition Metals got $100,000 from the MDRF for its gold exploration in Cape Breton, and Anaconda Gold received $43,000 for its gold exploration in Goldboro (where Anaconda’s CEO now says it has struck pay dirt).
Seabourne Resources got $43,000 for gold exploration at its “Shot Rock” property between New Glasgow and Antigonish County. The Examiner has reported on local opposition to that exploration reported here.
One prospector, Henry Schenkels, received $48,200 for his gold prospecting, and John Shurko netted $60,000 from the MDRF in 2019-2020.
The Mining Association of Nova Scotia (MANS) that lobbies the government on behalf of the mining industry received $36,900 from the province’s MRDF in the same year.
For 2020-21, the MRDF again lavished funds on mining and exploration companies.
For gold exploration in Goldboro, Orex Exploration received $150,000.
As it did the precious year, Seabourne Resources once again got public money — $75,000 this time — for its “Shot Rock” gold exploration.
Harry Schenkels once again received funds from the MRDF in 2020-21, getting $85,000 for gold prospecting. Others who fared well were Jim Michaelis ($95,000), member of the MANS board of directors and member of the MRDF Advisory Council Rick Horne ($42,500), and Perry Bezanson ($42,100),
Another who received funds ($27,500) for gold prospecting in 2019-20 is Garth DeMont, a retired geologist from the Department of Energy and Mines.
And once again, MANS received public money to the tune of $20,300.
In other words, there seems to be oodles of provincial government money for people with a direct interest in promoting still more mining, particularly gold mining.
So it seems odd, to say the least, that the province hasn’t seen fit to provide Campbell with public funds to do research on cleaning up the mess from earlier gold mining.
Public money for tailings clean-ups, but not for research?
The government of Nova Scotia has committed $48 million to remediating historic gold mine tailings at just two of 64 historic gold mine districts — at Montague Mines and Goldboro. The historic gold mine remediation project is in the hands of the provincial Crown agency, Nova Scotia Lands, as reported here.
Asked whether her research is separate from this project, Campbell replied that it was.
The Examiner also asked Campbell if the results of her work could be used for those clean-ups, and if so, why the province wasn’t funding the research. This is her reply:
We hope that our research will support future remediation approaches especially for historically impacted wetlands still experiencing toxicity from legacy gold-mine tailing wastes. We are not actually undertaking any remediation project of any kind, as our goal is to develop and test a potential application.
We are keeping our provincial colleagues updated on our progress and findings whenever possible.
Research funding for interdisciplinary projects, such as ours which combine a diverse [set] of approaches, can be very challenging. We had funding success, including a National Wetlands Conservation Fund grant (Environment Canada & Climate Change) and a Mineral Development Resource Program grant (Nova Scotia Energy and Mines) a few years back. Those funds were used to support a pilot bench-top & lab ecotoxicology project which provided essential data for this stage of our research. We are still working on applying for and securing additional funding for our research from federal and provincial departments.
“Terribly disappointing but not surprising”
And now we come back to some of those who have contacted the Examiner to express dismay about Atlantic Gold’s “partnership” with SMU.
“It’s terribly disappointing but not surprising,” says John Perkins.
Perkins is a member of Sustainable Northern Nova Scotia (SUNNS) that is working to keep gold exploration and mining out of the watershed of the French River that supplies Tatamagouche with its water, and also a member of the West Mining Action Network (WMAN) that aims to protect “communities, land, water, air, and wildlife by reforming mining practices and holding government and corporations accountable.”
In an email to the Halifax Examiner, Perkins writes:
The tentacles of corporate influence once again capture what should be public funding of research at a public university for the public good and turn it into a PR moment. Unfortunately the privatization of research funding often comes with limits on academic freedom, publication restrictions, non-disclosure agreements, prevention of outside assessment, suppression of unflattering results, and influence on research agendas. Without knowing the details of the agreements between Saint Mary’s, Atlantic Gold and Dr. Campbell it’s hard to know just how bad this will turn out to be. Lets hope the SMU lawyers and ethics folks had a good look at it before running to the bank.
“Why are local university researchers having to rely on mining industry patronage to complete this essential environmental work?” asks Scott Beaver, president of the St. Mary’s River Association that is opposed to an open pit gold mine that Atlantic Gold has proposed for Cochrane Hill — which would be the fourth mine it wants to operate on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore.
“The timing of the funding announcement seems a little suspect, just two weeks before Atlantic Gold appears in court to answer for 32 environmental charges,” says Beaver in an email.
Kathryn Anderson of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network tells the Examiner that she has seen “the negative impacts of mining by Canadian companies in Guatemala” and is “concerned that these impacts are occurring in Nova Scotia.” This is her reaction to the announcement:
I find it most unfortunate that Saint Mary’s University is actively involved in environmental green-washing by agreeing to accept funding from Atlantic Gold for the next five years for research on the remediation of contaminated mining sites in Nova Scotia. SMU must be aware that many Nova Scotia citizens have publicly questioned Atlantic Gold’s mining project in Nova Scotia, with the major risk of contaminating rivers and lands in Eastern Nova Scotia, both short-term and for decades to come, even centuries! I very much hope that SMU will re-consider its highly questionable decision to accept this funding. I cannot help but wonder what ethical guidelines SMU uses in funding its research.