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On March 31, the Australian company St. Barbara, which last year acquired Atlantic Gold with its open pit gold mine at Moose River and a project to open three more mines along Nova Scotia’s Eastern shore, sent investors a COVID-19 update. It stated:
St Barbara’s priority during this time is the health and wellbeing of its people, its partners and suppliers, and the communities in which it operates. The Company’s three operations in Australia, Canada and PNG [Papua New Guinea] have been able to maintain operations, production and gold shipments at this time.
St Barbara has implemented measures in line with the relevant government advice (tailored for local health authorities’ instructions and advice for each of our sites), including cancelling all non‐essential travel, working from home where practicable, enforcing self‐isolation policies when appropriate and encouraging good hygiene practices and physical distancing across our workplaces and at home.
Referring to its operations in Canada, at the Touquoy gold mine in Moose River, the investor update added that:
Atlantic Gold maintains its drive‐in roster with the local workforce.
The same day, I emailed Atlantic Gold’s communications director, Dustin O’Leary, to request more details. I asked him:
How many of the workforce are still working at the Touquoy mine, and how many from home? Have there been any layoffs?
How are the rules about maintaining a 2-metre distance between people at all times being enforced? Can you provide a list of measures that have been communicated to the workforce?
What new cleaning or hygiene protocols has Atlantic Gold brought in at its Moose River operation?
Do any members of the workforce car-share or ride-share to get to the mine? [I have been told by a well-informed source that some workers at the Moose River mine live as far away as New Glasgow and because there is no camp at the mine, they have to commute. They can be so tired after their shifts that they sometimes pull over and sleep in their cars on the way home.]
Regular readers of the Halifax Examiner’s coverage of Atlantic Gold will not be overly surprised by the unhelpful reply I received from the company’s uncommunicative communications director, who wrote this:
In relation to the piece you are writing, Atlantic Gold has elected not to provide comment.
A few days earlier, I had sent an email to the province’s COVID-19 media relations. I wanted to know whether the Moose River gold mine and the Donkin coal mine were still operating (this was four days before Kameron Coal announced it would be closing Donkin for good), and if they were, if they were being monitored by the Nova Scotia Health Authority to ensure they were respecting the physical distancing rules and other measures that the government had imposed to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus. I also asked if the government had contemplated asking them to close temporarily, and if mining was considered an essential service.
In an email, government spokesperson Marla MacInnis replied:
Services that are deemed essential and exempt from gathering limits are
• food, agrifood and fisheries
• transportation, including trucking, rail and transit
• construction and manufacturing
• IT, telecommunications and critical infrastructure
• public services, such as police, fire and ambulances
MacInnis noted that even these essential services were required to maintain social distancing and other public health protocols. She continued:
Other businesses that can maintain social distance of 2 metres or 6 feet between clients and customers can stay open. If social distance can’t be maintained, the business must limit the number of customers or clients on its premises to no more than 5 people at a time. Businesses should regularly clean and disinfect workspaces and high-touch areas at least twice a day or more if required, and ensure employees are practicing good hygiene.
Workplaces have a duty to take precautions to ensure the health and safety of persons at the workplace. Furthermore, employers and employees must follow the orders issued under the Health Protection Act. If an employee feels their employer is not complying with an order under the Health Protection Act, such as social distancing, they should report this concern to their immediate supervisor. If the issue is not resolved, they should report to their joint occupational health and safety committee if one exists, and if needed, contact the Safety Branch at 1-800-9-Labour or [email protected].
MacInnis said that if I had questions about the operations of specific businesses, “it would be best to talk to them.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to Atlantic Gold, that can be easier said than done, as I have learned from many futile attempts to get answers from communications director Dustin O’Leary.
Atlantic Gold springs into PR action
Then, yesterday, Atlantic Gold suddenly sprang into PR action, sending out an April “special notice” to “community members along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore.”
The newsletter, signed by Maryse Belanger, “President Americas” of Atlantic Gold’s parent company St. Barbara Ltd, said that the open pit gold mine at Moose River was still in production. And she made this claim:
Our entire team is committed to meeting our responsibilities to our staff, their safety, our shared environment, and Atlantic Gold’s business. Our priority is to safeguard the continued health and stability of our staff while ensuring our operations remain safe and environmentally responsible.
That is all gilded PR-speak, of course.
Atlantic Gold’s “priority” is its bottom line, which is why it is still operating its gold mine in this time of COVID-19, despite all the risks that entails for its workforce, their families, and the community. The coronavirus crisis that is causing immeasurable human suffering and economic hardship around the world is also driving the gold price up, creating a windfall for gold producers.
As the Halifax Examiner reported here, even before gold prices began to soar, Atlantic Gold was doing very well for itself from Nova Scotia’s gold. According to the province’s 2019 Mineral Production Report, in 2017 the Moose River mine produced gold worth $24.9 million. Yet the report Atlantic Gold filed under the Extractive Sector Transparency Measures Act (ESTMA) that year showed it paid nothing in taxes and royalties to any level of government.
In 2018, Atlantic Gold produced 90,500 ounces at Moose River, the value of which would have been upwards of $150 million. That year the company’s ESTMA report showed it paid $0 in taxes to any level of government, and just $1.18 million in royalties to the province.
Atlantic Gold boasts that it is “one of the lowest cost gold producers in the world.” Given that there is nothing exceptional about the ore grade at Moose River, one has to wonder how that can be, what perks and benefits the company is enjoying here in Nova Scotia that allow it to keep its costs so low.
At last year’s Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) annual mining convention in Toronto, Belanger told investors, “I always say it’s not about making gold. It’s about making money.” Not the kind of thing one puts in a newsletter to “community members” who live anywhere near a large open pit gold mine, and have to put up with the truck traffic or the blasting, or the ever-present menace of tailings dams that could leak or break, spilling toxic mine tailings and polluting waterways and causing environmental disasters, even long, long after the mining companies have packed up and gone.
Belanger’s COVID-19 special notice to “community members” does say that since March 11, all Atlantic Gold staff able to work “remotely” have been doing so. Coincidentally, that is the same day that PDAC organizers informed attendees of its 2020 convention held in Toronto at the beginning of March — and Atlantic Gold had a sizeable delegation there — that a convention attendee (the first of what would turn out to be a few) had tested positive for COVID-19.
As for COVID-19 precautions, the newsletter states that Atlantic Gold staff and management:
… are enforcing all government regulated COVID-19 related provincial directives including social distancing and restricting work-related gatherings to five people or less. Our management team is keeping an open dialogue to monitor the health and safety of all of those working on-site.
To support social distancing, we are providing provincial regulators with a weekly update on environmental conditions to reduce requirements for non-Atlantic Gold employees to visit the mine site.
If I’ve read that correctly, it means that Atlantic Gold is policing itself on how it conforms to COVID-19 rules, and doing its own environmental reporting to the provincial government.
A handy arrangement, at least for Atlantic Gold’s management team.
As for what employees can expect, the newsletter says:
All hourly employees of Atlantic Gold will be paid at their normal rate during their time off due to the COVID-19 virus. This includes employees who must self-isolate or are caring for dependents who are afflicted with COVID-19.
Employees who have lost childcare and are unable to work as a result will be paid up to 30-days or until they can find suitable childcare.
The newsletter also states that if the government orders a “wider shutdown,” Atlantic Gold “will pay up to 30-days wages to any employee unable to work on-site or from home.”
Much was missing from Belanger’s newsletter. It did not say about whether any Atlantic Gold employee has had to self-isolate and if so, why. Nor were there any numbers for how many employees are “hourly” or what their “normal rate” of pay is. Or how many employees would be unable to work from home and thus be entitled to “up to” 30 days of wages should the mine have to shut down. This, from the company that St. Barbara acquired last year for $722 million and that paid no tax in 2018.
I asked Barbara Markovits of the Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association, which has been critical of the Moose River gold mine project since long before it opened, what she thought about the contents of the Atlantic Gold “April Special Notice” about COVID-19. This is her answer:
Gold mining is an essential industry??? Thirty days wages to the workers? Makes me sick!
Atlantic Gold has yet to fulfil its 2008 obligations
The newsletter and its platitudes are not the only thing about Atlantic Gold that frustrated Markovits yesterday.
In an interview last week, she told me that when Atlantic Gold (or rather, its predecessor, DDV Gold) received its environmental approval from the Nova Scotia government on February 1, 2008 for the “surface gold mine at Moose River,” the approval came with Terms and Conditions.
These terms were laid out by then Minister of Environment and Labour, Mark Parent, in the Progressive Conservative government of Rodney MacDonald.
One of the conditions is that:
Within four years of the date of this Approval, the Proponent shall develop and implement a plan for procuring conservation land with valued protected areas attributes in the vicinity of the Undertaking for statutory protection by the province. The plan shall be developed in consultation with NSEL [Nova Scotia Environment and Labour], NSDNR [Department of Natural Resources], the Community Liaison Committee, and any other parties identified by NSEL. The plan must be approved by the Minister prior to implementation.”
Curious as to whether Atlantic Gold had fulfilled this condition of its environmental approval — issued twelve years ago — I emailed Nova Scotia Environment spokesperson Rachel Boomer. I asked if the company had provided the government with a plan for procuring the conservation land as it was supposed to have done by 2012, and whether the land had been procured and handed over to the province for protection, as Environment and Labour Minister Parent mandated it to do back in 2008.
Turns out the answer is no.
The province has been in ongoing negotiations with Atlantic Gold with respect to these conditions for a number of years. We have reached a draft agreement and are working to finalize the details. Once all parties sign the agreement, the company will have four years to buy the land. We hope to have this agreement signed by all parties in the coming months.
Our goal is to have the company purchase 256 hectares’ worth of land for protection with high biodiversity value, similar to the land being protected by the project [I believe this should say “land being leased” from the province by the project – Atlantic Gold – and have written to Boomer for clarification].
I asked Markovits for her reaction to the news that Atlantic Gold has so far failed to fulfill this key condition of its environmental approval. This is her reply:
Talk about being a day late and a dollar short! Eight years late and still not done?!
I’m really too irritated to comment coherently! I’d like to know which lands are being considered for purchase and protection. Additions to Lake Charlotte Provincial Park, perhaps? … The late lamented Owl’s Head Provincial Park, perhaps? Or the private land for sale next to Owl’s Head? Sizeable addition to Ship Harbour Wilderness Area?
Markovits added that she would need more information to put together a coherent comment.
I’ve emailed Boomer to ask what caused the delay — of eight years and counting — for Atlantic Gold to submit a plan to the province for procuring 256 hectares of conservation land with high biodiversity value that it can then hand over to the province for protection. As of this writing, I’ve not received a reply, but I will report it when I do.
Atlantic Gold’s failure to comply with this particular condition of its environmental approval doesn’t necessarily mean that it has been allowed to get away with other transgressions. Still, the fact that it has not yet complied with this straightforward condition of its environmental approval issued in 2008 isn’t exactly reassuring.
Nor does it inspire confidence that Atlantic Gold, unfettered as it now seems to be by provincial inspectors, continues to operate its gold mine in this time of COVID-19, oversee itself, and expect us to believe that it is to be trusted to abide by regulations to protect not just the environment, but also its workforce and the community from COVID-19.
Update, Monday, April 6:
In an email, I asked Rachel Boomer to clarify what she meant in her original reply about Atlantic Gold being required to provide the province with a plan (by 2012) to procure a piece of land close to the proposed open pit gold mine at Moose River (which has been in operation since 2017) and donate it to the province for protection, a piece of land to compensate for the Crown land being used by the mine. In her reply, Boomer had said that the 256-hectare piece of land had to be “… similar to the land being protected by the project.”
Boomer has now send a clarification, saying that “The requirement was for the company to buy land of similar ecological value to the land being used by the project.”
I had also asked her what caused the delay, given that the original terms and conditions said that the proponent, then DDV Gold and now Atlantic Gold, was to have completed the plan within four years of receiving approval in 2008. Specifically, I wanted to know whether the delay was caused by the proponent, or by parties identified by NSE responsible for the delay?
Boomer replied that, “The delay was related to challenges in the tangible capital asset accounting process required for land donations.”
My own reaction is that those challenges must have been enormous, as they appear to have prevented – for 12 years – Atlantic Gold from finding a suitable piece of land, and submitting a plan for its procurement, as it was to do by 2012, and then donating that land to the province for protection.
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