Much attention is focused on Crown land in Digby County that is threatened by logging operations. And last week, nine people from Extinction Rebellion were arrested while trying to prevent contractors in the employ of the WestFor consortium from accessing the public forest and moose habitat slated for cutting. But in another part of the province citizens have also been raising their voices about looming threats to the environment and valuable habitat for the endangered mainland moose from yet another destructive, extractive industrial activity — gold mining. And it turns out that Nova Scotia Environment has laid 32 Environment Act charges against Atlantic Mining NS, the company that operates the Touquoy gold mine at Moose River for Atlantic Gold and its Australian owner, St. Barbara. The first court date is Jan. 26, 2021.
On December 9, Krista Gillis was out doing what she loves best, wandering through the woods and along the waterways near Mooseland, a small community about 80 kilometres east of the Halifax airport.
Gillis, an avid angler and lover of the great outdoors, has family roots that stretch back generations in the area, and while she has a residence in Halifax, she spends as much of her time as she can in her home nestled into the woods near Mooseland, where she plans to retire.
It was a nice day that Wednesday, Gillis tells the Halifax Examiner, and it was about 10:30am when she passed a brook, in which the water was normally crystal clear, that was brown with mud.
Gillis says she was heartbroken to see the muddy water in the brook, and headed straight home to take to the phone to “scream and holler” and send out emails to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to the provincial Department of Lands and Forestry, and to Atlantic Gold.
It turned out that the sedimentation was caused by erosion from a site nearby, where a contractor working for Atlantic Gold was excavating clay for the mine tailings facility at the Australian company’s open pit Touquoy gold mine in Moose River, about two kilometres from the brook.
The brook flows down from Cope Lake and around Cope Hill, where the clay mining was on-going, into Camp Lake, and then eventually into Scraggy Lake adjacent to the Moose River gold mine.
Veronica Chisholm, a manager with Atlantic Gold, told Gillis they would follow up with her, and also encouraged her to reach out to the contractor doing the clay mining.
Four days later, on December 13, Gillis’ nephew, Mitchell Glawson, an avid hunter and fisher who lives near Shubenacadie but also owns a home in Mooseland, headed to the brook to see if the water had cleared.
If anything, the brook was even thicker with sediment, and Glawson was appalled.
Glawson took photographs of the muddied brook and posted them to the Trout Fishing Nova Scotia Facebook page, noting that the photos showed the brook that was “currently being destroyed by the ongoing clay mining operations associated with Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy site in Moose River.” He wrote that Atlantic Gold had told him that “rain stirred up a lot of natural turbidity.” Glawson continued:
… however I would like to make it clear that what we are seeing is not natural sediments which would occur in the brook during heavy rain events, [and] the photos attached show this. Any salmon or trout eggs which would have been laid over the last months or yet to be laid will be killed. Atlantic Gold has stated “they are continuing to monitor” this situation however this is even more concerning as it is obvious that the current controls for sedimentation and erosion control are greatly lacking. To have seen that no progress is being made while this situation is “being monitored” speaks volumes to the care and concern for the impacts this project is having and will eventually have. I hope the governing bodies do their job and enforce a proper plan for controlling the runoff and sediments at this location.
Glawson also sent the photos to Atlantic Gold, calling the pollution “disgusting,” adding:
To state that the environmental monitoring you supposedly do on this site is top notch, then to see this and know it’s been happening for days is very concerning. I can’t imagine the mess that will be allowed to be created as you push through your “haul road.”
The haul road to which Glawson was referring is the one over which Atlantic Gold wants to transport thousands of tonnes of crushed ore every day from a new mine it has proposed for Beaver Dam in Marinette, about 31 kilometres through moose country to its existing open pit gold mine at Moose River.
Atlantic Gold’s “string of pearls”
As the Examiner reported here, Beaver Dam would be the second of four gold mines — what Atlantic Gold calls its “string of pearls,” on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, which it calls “back yard Canada.”
What began in 2007 as plans by the Australian company, DDV Gold, for a single open pit mine at Moose River that somehow managed to elude a federal environmental assessment, later morphed into the Moose River consolidated project with three additional mines — Beaver Dam, 15-Mile Stream, and the very controversial one proposed for Cochrane Hill near Sherbrooke.
With joint federal-provincial environmental assessments not nearly completed for those additional mines, in the summer of 2019, the Australian company, St. Barbara acquired Atlantic Gold for $722 million. (The Examiner has reported extensively on Atlantic Gold since 2018 with some of that coverage available here, here, here, and here.)
While there has been a fair amount of publicity, such as this powerful music video by Dave Gunning, as well as national and international media coverage of the controversy over Atlantic Gold’s planned gold mine at Cochrane Hill because of its proximity to the St. Mary’s River, where millions of public dollars have gone into restoration of habitat for Atlantic salmon and other species, the Beaver Dam project has been quietly going through its impact assessment under the radar of the media and many Nova Scotians.
Even Glawson and Gillis, who spend so much of their time in the area, say they have been largely unaware of all the potential risks posed by the gold mining in the area. They tell the Examiner that it is only in the past six months that they have been involved, trying to find out more about the environmental impacts and to meet with Atlantic Gold representatives.
Glawson says that he, Gillis and others who share their concerns about Atlantic Gold’s operations and plans, had a meeting scheduled with Atlantic Gold for December 16.
However, Glawson says when he contacted Atlantic Gold’s Manager Environment and Permitting, Jim Millard, to confirm it, Millard informed him the meeting had been postponed at the last minute.
Glawson and Gillis say they are still hoping the meeting can take place, so that they can discuss their list of concerns, including restricted public access to popular fishing and camping spots, such as Scraggy Lake, the proposed haul road from Beaver Dam that would pass just 640 metres from Gillis’ home, and the sedimentation of the brook.
Nova Scotia Environment spokesperson Rachel Boomer tells the Examiner that NSE is:
… aware of the complaint relating to siltation at the clay borrow site. Our staff visited the clay borrow pit on December 15 to conduct an inspection, after receiving a report of a release from Atlantic Gold. The incident is still under investigation.
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.
Asked whether there had been other complaints to NSE about Atlantic Gold activities in the past year, Boomer replied:
The complaint we responded to on Dec. 15 about the clay borrow pit was the first public based complaint we received this year regarding sediment releases at sites related to Atlantic Mining NS activities. We have received and responded to reports of siltation submitted by the company itself and have taken appropriate actions to achieve compliance around these incidents. In September, we laid 32 Environment Act charges against Atlantic Mining NS Inc. for incidents dating between Feb. 8, 2018 and May 9, 2020; of those, 26 charges are related to silt releases at the Touquoy Gold Mine.
The Examiner contacted Atlantic Gold communications manager Dustin O’Leary with specific questions about the citizen concerns about sedimentation and the Beaver Dam proposal, and received the following reply:
Atlantic Gold has been informed by a third-party contractor of an environmental incident on land operated solely by the contractor. The contractor has alerted all relevant regulators and is actively working to address concerns and mitigate any impacts. The contractor is currently gathering clay on lands where they operate and thereafter transport those materials to Atlantic Gold’s Moose River Gold Mine. Atlantic Gold holds its contractors to the highest standards on the management of the environment and is currently conducting a review of the contractor’s responsibilities.
With regards to the proposed mine at Beaver Dam, a full submission has been delivered to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC), in accordance with the approvals process, which addresses all possible impacts. The assessment evaluated impacts from sensory disturbance (i.e. dust, light, noise, etc) on receptors closer than 600 metres and those impacts, once mitigated, were deemed to be within guidelines and without need for further mitigation measures. Impacts to wildlife, including mainland moose, are assessed in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and updates will be provided in revised EIS documents, which are scheduled to be submitted shortly.
Scathing comments on Atlantic Gold submission
O’Leary’s cursory statement about Atlantic Gold’s submission to the federal Impact Assessment Agency for the Beaver Dam mine planned for Marinette, about 30 kilometres east of the Moose River mine, makes no reference to the problems the company has had satisfying federal and provincial environment departments since the project was first registered with the IAAC in 2015.
We’ll get to those, but first, a brief look at some stats on the big hole that Atlantic Gold wants to dig at Beaver Dam.
Atlantic Gold submitted its first Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to the IAAC and Nova Scotia Environment in June 2017. It stated that the company intended to extract two million tonnes of ore per year at the proposed Beaver Dam mine, anticipating construction in 2021, production in 2022, and a cessation of operations in 2026, after just four years.
The mine would occupy about 145 hectares owned by Northern Timber Nova Scotia Corporation, a sister company to Northern Pulp, which has leased the land to Atlantic Gold.
The EIS says that 35,480 tonnes of rock will be blasted out of the earth every day; 5,480 of which will contain ore, while 30,000 tonnes of waste rock will be produced daily.
The mining will create a 30-hectare hole 900 metres long, 300-450 m deep, and 170 m deep. To put that in perspective, that’s a crater only slightly shorter than Lake Banook in Dartmouth, and more than 14 times as deep.
The impact assessment process is now into its second round of information requests to Atlantic Gold, after federal and provincial government departments sent Atlantic Gold back to the drawing board because of missing information, problematic plans and even errors in the EIS.
In its 2019 revised, 1093-page EIS submitted to the IAAC and Nova Scotia Environment (NSE), Atlantic Gold didn’t even manage to get the name of the provincial environmental legislation correct, earning itself this reprimand from NSE:
This section cites the relevant legislation in Nova Scotia as the Environmental Act. This is not correct. Please correct all citations of the name of the NS legislation to ‘Environment Act’.
Even on a second go, Atlantic Gold’s revised EIS for the Beaver Dam mine earned itself 203 critical comments from Nova Scotia government scientists and experts, some scathing.
Atlantic Gold claimed, for example, that a failure of the settling pond where runoff water would be stored at Beaver Dam would not have any adverse effects to terrestrial species and other “valued components” of the environment. The NSE reviewer responded with this damning comment:
Inadequate plan. Unacceptable to think that a settling pond failure is a low risk. Not preventative nor protective of the environment.
The Atlantic Gold EIS also said that the construction of the Beaver Dam Mine Site and Haul Road would have the “residual effect” of causing “habitat loss and disturbance,” but that this would not be a significant environmental effect. Nova Scotia Lands and Forestry was clearly not impressed, commenting that:
With habitat loss; incidental death of wildlife is likely and if habitat is not expected to fully recover for an extended period, impacts should be considered high. When a VC [valued component] is unlikely to recover or removed from a system, it would be significant. Habitat loss and incidental deaths are significant impacts. Revise.
The contentious haul route for Beaver Dam ore
Atlantic Gold’s 2019 revised EIS stated that crushed ore from the Beaver Dam mine would be transported to the existing Touquoy gold mine in Moose River, where it will be processed and then placed into the exhausted Touquoy pit, as the Moose River mine will have ceased operation by the time Beaver Dam starts.
The plan, according to the EIS, is to turn the Beaver Dam Mines Road, 15.4 km between the proposed mine and Highway 224, into a “dual lane road” that could “facilitate the safe passage of two-way truck traffic at a maximum speed of 70 km/h.”
The trucks would then cross the provincial Highway 224, which links Sheet Harbour and Upper Musquodoboit, and follow on a four-km stretch of road that Atlantic Gold intends to construct on land owned by Northern Timber and Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry. They would then link up with the public Mooseland Road, and travel 11.3 km to the Moose River mine site.
But it’s hard to know just what Atlantic Gold has planned for the transport of the ore, given contradictory information in the EIS, which an eagle-eyed and conscientious Nova Scotia Environment official picked up on. The reviewer noted that one section of the EIS said the haul trucks:
… will travel from the Beaver Dam Mine Site to the Touquoy Mine Site, a distance of approximately 30 km. The number of return truck trips per day will be an annual average of approximately 185 (370 one-way trips) or between 31 and 23 trucks per hour for 12 or 16 hours per day, 350 days per year for the duration of the mine Project (3.3 years).”
However, another section of the same EIS said something different:
The Haul Road (sometimes locally referred to as the Cross Road) connects Hwy 224 and Mooseland Road. Currently, local traffic from a few seasonal properties and recreational use the Haul Road path. In the past (not observed during baseline studies) it is reported that the Haul Road will have intermittent high use periods (up to 100 truck trips per day) associated with haul trucks and forestry worker trucks from logging activities utilizing the Haul Road.
Wrote the NSE reviewer, “Inconsistent information; one section states 185 trips per day and another section states up to 100 truck trips per day.”
An undated brochure on the Beaver Dam project on Atlantic Gold’s website states that hauling will be “between 7 am and 11 pm daily,” and that “a total of 185 return truck trips per day are planned” to transport the ore to the Touquoy mine.
In real terms, that means that for three-and-a-half years a steady stream of very loud, large, ore-laden trucks would be roaring along 30.1 km of road — more than 11 km of which are public — at speeds of 70 km/h for 16 hours every day.
That translates as one giant B-train or C-train truck weighing up to 68 tonnes passing — and also crossing Highway 224 — every two and a half minutes.
Driving the moose out of Mooseland?
And that, according to Krista Gillis, is “crazy, absolutely insane.” She sees the plan as a huge safety issue.
“How can you put those big double B-train trucks on public roads, and have them coming at you every few minutes?” asks Gillis.
“It’s disgusting,” she says. “That’s quarry activity coming onto our public roads. And they want to use an old existing woods road and put a big new one into a beautiful forest, which has already had a lot of damage done to it from clearcutting.”
Gillis says that moose are starting to return to Mooseland after an absence of about 35 years.
Three years ago she took pictures of a mother and her calf on an old woods road, which Gillis says is in the area where Atlantic Gold wants to build its new road, and “destroy the environment that the moose are finally coming back to.”
Gillis says that Atlantic Gold has already been to her place to take pictures of her well, telling her they were doing so in case dust from the road were to contaminate it.
“If dust can contaminate a well that is 2,100 feet [640 m] away from the road, what’s the dust going to do to the brooks, and the animals?” asks her nephew, Glawson. He also worries that the ore in the backs of the trucks will be arsenic-bearing, and that the new stretch of road that Atlantic Gold plans to construct would cut right through forest that is just recovering, as it hasn’t been logged “for some time.”
Gillis is concerned that there are so many government departments involved, that none seem to be completely in the know:
You think that the impact assessment with the federal government takes in everything. But then I learned that they don’t really deal with the public roads. You have to deal with the provincial side for the public roads, and when it has to do with lands and wildlife and forests, you have to go through that division and then also biodiversity. I learned that even though it’s Lands and Forests wildlife division, they don’t deal with moose because they’re a protected species.
In its revised EIS submitted in February 2019, Atlantic Gold states that:
Mainland moose have been recorded within 4.7 km of the mine footprint Beaver Dam Mine Site, and within 14.1 km of the Haul Road (ACCDC). Tracking surveys were completed for the purpose of determining the presence of moose within the Beaver Dam Mine Site and Haul Road (both mine footprint and Haul Road) … No mainland moose signs were observed incidentally or during dedicated moose surveys along the Haul Road.
A “plain language” Atlantic Gold environmental statement on Beaver Dam states:
Studies show the Beaver Dam Mine Project could affect animals such as black bear, moose and beaver. Effects could include animals moving away from the mine to different habitat areas to avoid increased noise and light levels. Scientists know that animals do not generally live close to mining activities, especially when the mines are being built. Atlantic Gold will develop a mainland moose monitoring program with the participation of the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia to determine moose activity during mining operations. This will help the company avoid areas where moose live, forage and travel through. Mainland moose is considered a species at risk by the provincial government.
The Examiner sent a list of questions Department of Lands and Forestry (DLF) about moose populations and habitat in the area, how those might be affected by the proposed truck traffic on the hauling rote, and whether it has been in discussions with Atlantic Gold to help “develop a mainland moose monitoring program.”
DLF spokesperson Deborah Bayer sent this reply:
The Beaver Dam Mine Project by Atlantic Gold is currently undergoing a joint federal-provincial review. Provincially, the environmental assessment (EA) is led by the NS Department of Environment and includes an assessment of the impacts of the proposed development and associated activities on species at risk and other wildlife, including Mainland moose, using the best available information.
Information within the EA may be reviewed by any member of the general public, interest groups, and government departments and agencies, including the NS Department of Lands and Forestry. The public will have an additional 30-day comment period later in the joint EA process. The public are encouraged to report their observations of species at risk so that information can be considered in the assessments. Moose observations can be reported here: https://novascotia.ca/natr/wildlife/sustainable/observe.asp.
“I’ll be tying myself to a tree”
Gillis tells the Examiner that she has no intention of backing down.
“I will be tying myself to a tree to protect the moose and the environment,” she says. “I will tie myself to rocks, I will block them off. I’m going to keep on fighting. I’m that kind of person.”
Glawson says that while he has friends and family members who depend on the Moose River mine [presumably for work], he still thinks Atlantic Gold has to put in proper provisions for the environment.
Glawson says that people are concerned by the lack of monitoring that has led to the pollution of the brook, and also that Atlantic Gold has been restricting access to popular fishing and recreational areas such as Scraggy Lake, where the Touquoy gold mine sources its water — 8.3 million litres a day when it was starting up and 720,000 litres per day now, and also releases treated water used for processing the ore, according to its 2017 GHD application to Nova Scotia Environment.
“You’re not allowed to have motorized vehicles there now,” Glawson tells the Examiner. “You have to carry your canoe in. But drilling exploration is happening so close to that area that it’s silly to keep us out. They put up yellow signs saying no motorized vehicles, no trail designation, and then 100 yards away, there are drill holes from exploration.”
One of my largest concerns is that if nobody’s allowed to access the area, if we’re restricted from seeing what they’re doing, if we’re pushed off to 100 different people to get an answer, they’ll be allowed to do basically what they want.
“Save Caribou” group feels “invaded”
Gillis and Glawson — as well as the nine others who have recently written comments on the IAAC project page for Beaver Dam to express their concern about Atlantic Gold plans — are not the only citizens with big concerns about the haul road and plans for the Beaver Dam gold mine.
Also worried about the proposed haul route and expanded gold mining and exploration in the area are the members of a group known as “Save Caribou,” which formed in 2004 as a “community environmental watchdog for forestry practices.”
Save Caribou member Betty Belmore tells the Examiner that members of the group have been trying to save the land in the area for 50 years, stop its ravaging by clearcutting, and let the land reclaim itself, secure protected wilderness status for land with old-growth forest and rare and endangered species that exist in places like Sherlock Lake between Caribou and Moose River.
“We’ve grown up there and we’ve also grown up with gold mines, so it’s not like it’s new to us,” Belmore says.
She says they often see moose tracks around their family home in Caribou, but these days feel “invaded” by Atlantic Gold and its mineral exploration, which involves cutting swathes of trees to widen roads for drilling equipment. Belmore adds:
We have “hands on” experience with dust and noise pollution since the opening of the Touquoy Mine. Save Caribou is very well acquainted with the historic village of Moose River Gold Mines. We experienced first hand the heartbreak and stress on its elderly citizens when forced to leave their family homes with no intervention or assistance from any source [something the Halifax Examiner reported on here].
Save Caribou submitted a comment on the proposed Beaver Dam mine to the IAAC in April 2019, describing eight “grave” concerns it has about the proposed haul road, including speed on the unpatrolled two-lane highway through the remote location, light pollution during evening hours, potential spills, risk of forest fires, the use of salt on the route, and not least, the dust and noise “that will have a significant impact on wildlife, plants and water quality.”
For his thoughts on the risks to endangered mainland moose and their habitat in the area around Moose River mine and the planned mine at Beaver Dam, and the proposed haul route for ore between them, the Examiner contacted Nature Nova Scotia president and wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft, who has studied mainland moose for half a century and served on the mainland moose recovery team.
Bancroft replied that the risk to moose of the Atlantic Gold’s proposed mine and ore-hauling plans should “weigh heavily” in any environmental assessment, saying:
I am certain that the frenetic pace of the hauling and the proposed route through roads in moose territory in this proposal will cause them to abandon the area and attempt to relocate.
Then, asks Bancroft: “The question is, to where?”
With so much of the Eastern Shore slated for gold mining, and under intensive exploration and drilling for gold, Bancroft’s question is definitely not rhetorical.
Excellent work Joan Baxter.
Hopefully we get ore follow-up and consequences from NSE than just noting the problems.
Against medical advice, I am holding my breath.
These three projects highlight a big problem, which is, a lack of big picture long term thinking for development in Nova Scotia and Canada. No one project among these has absolutely devastating short term effects to point to that would put a stop to their approval under given laws and regulations, so they get pushed through. Once approved a few violations are expected by the companies and are built in as a cost of doing business. Life goes on.
Gathering and assessing the long term cumulative impacts of all of the development we are doing in all industries is where we fall short. Roads for example have a massive impact on landscapes and wildlife (specifically mainland moose in this case) when you study them at the appropriate macro scale. The habitat fragmentation and avoidance behavior that they cause breaks up their life cycle/migration patterns etc. A the scale of any single road people are able to justify the impacts
THIS hauling road itself (though it will have an exceptionally high impact) isn’t the smoking gun… but when you look at all of the hauling roads and all of the highways being developed in Nova Scotia with NO long term planning…a road here, a road there, purpose built to get to this stand of trees or that stand of trees or this gravel pit or this lakefront development or this mine etc. things start to add up. NOBODY is in charge of this for roads. It’s DTIR here, a DLF IRM committee there, a municipal council there, approving these roads. None of whom are experts in the cumulative impacts of roads. There no central authority and no long term big picture plan to curb road impacts. HOW do you start to recovery a species like mainland moose when you have no way of regulating one of the things that impact it most?
Roads once built are not easily decommissioned and are (lately) being built as if they are forever roads. 20m (or more) wide clearings, massive amounts of material brought in, bridges built etc. This isn’t grandpas hauling road in the woodlot he built with a tractor… these are built to last. Almost none of them are gated or have restricted access or are properly decommissioned (even those within newly protected areas). They bring poaching, they bring invasive and exotic species, they bring increased resource extraction (hunting and fishing pressure), they have edge effects, they change the behavior of wildlife and they cause aquatic and terrestrial habitat fragmentation.
Now expand that out to so many other development projects (agriculture, forestry, mining, housing developments, power generation etc)…the cumulative effects on water quality, cumulative effects on air quality, cumulative effects on wildlife are what really matter. As the examiner already touched on people and wildlife are still suffering the effects of historic gold mining in areas that nobody was ever was or will ever be held accountable for those impacts… and now new mines are being approved in the same areas BEFORE they’ve fully recovered. The lack of big picture thinking is creating large scale and diffuse changes that are MUCH harder to reverse than the acute effects of any single project.