In March 2020, the Halifax Examiner published the award-winning series, “Port Wallace Gamble: the real estate boom meets Nova Scotia’s toxic mine legacy.” The three articles (available here, here and here) looked at Clayton Developments’ proposed new and massive subdivision for Port Wallace in Dartmouth, and serious concerns about the mercury and arsenic contamination from historic mine tailings in the area, and also traffic congestion on Waverley Road. This article revisits the proposed development, now that Nova Scotia’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing has designated Clayton Developments’ Port Wallace property one of nine “special planning areas” slated for fast-tracked development in Halifax Regional Municipality.
It’s a stunning and clear but crisp early spring morning when I meet up with a small group of Dartmouth residents on Waverley Road for a visit to the site of the proposed Port Wallace subdivision.
We start at the bridge over Barry’s Run, and head into the woods on a trail that follows the meandering path of what is, at this time of year, a vigorous brook.
Barry’s Run is a remarkable little water body in “Canada’s City of Lakes.”
It begins as a stream that emerges from Mitchell’s Brook, then spreads out to form a wetland surrounded by woods and grasses, before narrowing and gaining momentum again as a brook, that gurgles its way into Lake Charles.
A few hundred metres along the trail, we reach the grassy shore of the wetland portion of Barry’s Run. The bucolic beauty of the place and the forest backdrop make it easy to be lulled into believing you’ve left the city far behind, and landed right in the middle of a beautiful, untouched wilderness area or national park.
Or it would be, were it not for the blue expanse of IKEA’s imposing building atop a mountain of rock on the far side of Lake Charles in the distance, the faint rumble of traffic on Highway 118 and the Forest Hills Extension, and mostly, the large red “Advisory” signs warning against wading or swimming or fishing in these waters.
Barry’s Run is anything but pristine.
It is contaminated with arsenic, which is coming from the historic tailings of the Montague Gold Mines site a few hundred metres upstream, where gold was mined from 1862 until 1928, and then off and on until 1940.
For nearly 80 years, the miners simply dumped the tailings — the fine sandy material laced with arsenic and mercury that was left after the rock was crushed to extract the gold — into nearby streams.
In the case of Montague Gold Mines, that meant Mitchell’s Brook, which feeds into Barry’s Run that discharges into Lake Charles.
Related: Port Wallace Gamble: The real estate boom meets Nova Scotia’s toxic mine legacy. Part 1: The making of a toxic mess and the uncalculated costs of previous gold rushes
A 1938 report to the Nova Scotia deputy minister of mines described how Montague Gold Mines tailings, known as “slime,” were causing waters in Lake Charles to turn “milky.”
However, it was only in 2019, a year after Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) received a 623-page environmental site assessment it had commissioned, that HRM issued a risk advisory for Barry’s Run. The study identified risks to:
- Children playing in the bog/fen complex for recreational purposes
- Children playing in shallow portions of Mitchell’s Brook [upstream from Barry’s Run] for recreational purposes
- Fishing activities and fish consumption in Mitchell’s Brook and Barry’s Run Impacts to ecological receptors [and plants or animals exposed to the arsenic]
The reason HRM commissioned that study had everything to do with the massive new development that Clayton Developments, part of the Shaw Group, had planned for Port Wallace, on either side of Barry’s Run.
The 2019 environmental site assessment cited a supplemental study undertaken by Acadia University, which brought bad news about the arsenic contamination from the tailings in the waterways downstream from the historic gold mine.
Related: Port Wallace Gamble: The real estate boom meets Nova Scotia’s toxic mine legacy. Part 2. The suburb proposed to be built in the shadow of Montague Gold Mines.
“The study has evidence to suggest that, while there may have been a historic period where Barry’s Run was recovering, there are now near surface sediments with arsenic concentrations similar to old tailing deposits,” states the site assessment report, which concludes:
This provides evidence that the fen [Barry’s Run wetland] is still acting as a sink for arsenic impacted tailings originating in upgradient areas and that these materials continue to be mobilized into Barry’s Run. The upper sediment layers of Barry’s Run are also very fine with a mix of organic and clay-size particle fractions which can be readily mobilized if disturbed.
There was equally bad news for both the Port Wallace developers and HRM:
The proposed development on the lands adjacent to the Site has the potential to increase stormwater flow volumes to the Site and increase mobilization of tailings material through the Site.
Any increase in stormwater flows from the adjacent development to the subject site should be prohibited unless it can be demonstrated to not disrupt the bog/fen complex integrity or mobilize more tailings into the system.
It is that proposed Port Wallace development that has inspired this morning’s visit to Barry’s Run and along trails in the woods of the adjacent lands owned by Clayton Developments, which the company plans to convert into a large subdivision it calls “The Parks of Port Wallace.”
The group of people who have organized today’s excursion to the area are deeply concerned about the nature of the development, which they say will involve levelling the woods and streams on the roughly 500 acres of land slated for the subdivision, which they believe stabilize waterflow into Barry’s Run.
They don’t believe it’s possible to keep the stormwater that would result from the thousands of roofs and driveways in the proposed subdivision out of Barry’s Run, where it could mobilize the toxic tailings.
Public left in the dark
And while the people guiding me today have been concerned for years about the project, the group behind our visit to the site are even more concerned now that the province has designated Port Wallace as one of nine “special planning areas,” which will be fast-tracked to increase housing supply in HRM.
This gives John Lohr, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the “authority for development approvals” in the area.
Related: ‘Anti-democratic’ bill cutting Halifax planning committees goes ahead
Lohr signed the order designating Port Wallace a special planning area on March 24, based on a decision made by the Executive Panel on Housing in HRM that Premier Tim Houston appointed in November 2021.
Minutes of the Executive Panel’s meetings show that discussions about the special planning areas began in February 2022. All five panel meetings since then have involved discussions about the special planning areas, and all have been entirely “in camera,” leaving the public in the dark.
“Dawn could not wash a set of minutes any cleaner,” says Doug Skinner, one of those on today’s excursion in Port Wallace. “Great public disclosure!”
Skinner, a retired engineer who has lived near Lake Charles since 1964, knows a fair amount about the history of Barry’s Run. He says when the Shubenacadie Canal was being operated until the late 1860s, the water level of Barry’s Run was probably between six and eight feet higher than it is today. The area above the dam was known as Summit Reservoir, and was used to maintain the level in Lake Charles for locks operation.
“Gold mining carried on until after 1900, and there was a sawmill at Barry’s Run just below the dam,” Skinner explains. “That sawmill operated from 1861 to about 1890. That’s what probably milled the wood for the village in Port Wallace, which was built beginning in 1861.”
The dam would maintain the water level high enough to power the sawmill, Skinner says.
That means Barry’s Run — and its tailings-contaminated water — would have been deep enough to extend far beyond its current banks, possibly depositing contaminated sediment on the Port Wallace Holdings lands slated for a new subdivision.
In Skinner’s view, there should be a much bigger buffer zone around Barry’s Run than is currently planned, and he worries about runoff caused by construction activities on the land and stormwater from future development disturbing the polluted sediments.
‘Tail is firmly wagging the dog’
Skinner recognizes the need for affordable housing in HRM, but he is far from convinced that the Port Wallace development as proposed is the answer.
Skinner did a study of how it would affect traffic, and is deeply concerned that the subdivision will add to the existing traffic congestion on the narrow and winding Waverley Road, a route he believes will be unsafe if the population it serves is tripled.
Asked whether he was surprised that the province designated this controversial site as a “special planning area” for fast-tracked development, Skinner replies:
No, I wasn’t. Disappointed, but not surprised. I knew the urgency that was being put on this. But what surprises me is that they’re not proposing Shannon Park because it seems like a much better area, closer to the centre of the city.
“Construct a high-rise development in Shannon Park and you’ve got the housing you need without the transportation issues, and with more opportunity for affordable units,” Skinner says.
Related: Port Wallace Gamble: The real estate boom meets Nova Scotia’s toxic mine legacy. Part 3. Cleaning up the historic tailings from Montague Gold Mines – does Port Wallace Development hang in the balance?
The Examiner emailed questions about the Port Wallace development to Tony Mancini, municipal councillor for the area, but has received no reply.
Dartmouth Centre Councillor Sam Austin, who before entering municipal politics was an urban planner, has been openly critical of the special planning areas and a bill to amend the HRM charter, on which the Examiner reported here. Speaking at an April 9 rally organized by opponents of another of the special planning areas in Dartmouth, at Southdale / Mount Hope, Austin did not hold back:
I have been the councillor here in Dartmouth Centre for six years and during that time I have always approached my role in how I relate to other orders of government with a great deal of deference. I have opinions, like everybody, but it’s not my place to second-guess the difficult decisions made by my Provincial and Federal counterparts in their own jurisdiction. I have managed to not pick a fight with any of them over those six years. That changed with the Housing in HRM bill and the resulting task force and the Minister’s designation of nine special planning areas, including here at Eisner’s marsh. Sometimes fights choose you and this one has chosen me. What the Province is doing here is so fundamentally wrong. It is the biggest intrusion into municipal responsibilities since the forced amalgamation of HRM over 25 years ago. Quick question for all of you: how many planners do you think the province has in Municipal Affairs? Shout me a number. Three in Municipal Affairs for the whole Province. HRM has over 100 planners. We have the expertise here, not them, but yet they’re dictating planning. The tail is firmly wagging the dog here and the tail has a not a clue what it’s doing. The province has taken our public planning process and moved it behind closed doors. An unelected taskforce will make decisions in secret and the minister, an MLA from the Annapolis Valley with no ties to our community, will then approve those decisions. There is no place for the public anywhere in that process.
So what happens next?
In February 2020, Nova Scotia Lands, which is responsible for the remediation of historic gold mines in the province, including the Montague Gold Mines site, received a “human health risk assessment” for Barry’s Run.
That report states that all the health advisories for the area should remain in place, while a “final closure plan for Montague Mines is being completed.”
“Additional study and design are currently underway on this closure plan,” it notes.
The health risk assessment says the Barry’s Run wetland is still “acting as a sink for arsenic impacted sediments from upstream areas,” and cautions that:
Future land development involving release of storm waters to this area, or disturbance of sediments by public land users (through ATV usage in upgradient stream areas or dirt biking on exposed tailings at the Montague Mines site), has the potential to mobilize sediments in these areas and transport them further downstream into Lake Charles, if not properly managed.
So what does that mean for the Port Wallace Holdings subdivision just downstream from the Montague Gold Mines site, where remediation has yet to begin?
The Executive Panel for Housing in HRM offers precious little information on the Port Wallace special planning area, saying cryptically:
- Clayton Developments and three other landowners
- Up to 4900 units (phased development plan)
- Shovel ready for Fall 2022
On its website, Clayton Developments describes its Port Wallace project in these glowing terms:
Taking the successful best practices from developing The Parks of West Bedford, Clayton will soon begin developing another very similar community in Dartmouth. The Parks of Port Wallace will be a beautiful master planned community offering multiple housing styles – including apartments, townhomes, bungalows, two-storey homes and more. Residents will enjoy plenty of green space, playgrounds and trails within and surrounding the community. Dartmouth Crossing and Mic Mac Mall will be just minutes away, as will many other shops, services and restaurants. As always, we will work with premium builders, ensuring buyers have access to modern, well-designed homes in this beautiful new community.
Stay tuned for updates on when The Parks of Port Wallace will break ground!
Clayton neglects to mention Barry’s Run or that it is a contaminated site.
Seeking elusive clarity
Two phone calls and an email to Clayton Developments with questions about the latest plans and more details about the Port Wallace Holdings lands and the project timeline have so far gone unanswered.
The Examiner also sent a list of detailed questions to the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing about how and if the contamination could affect the proposed subdivision in the Port Wallace special planning area. This is the reply from spokesperson Krista Higdon:
Nova Scotia is facing a housing crisis. Housing supply is particularly challenging in the Halifax area. Designation gives the Minister the authority to make development decisions in these areas, as outlined under the Housing in the Halifax Regional Municipality Act. Developers will continue to work with HRM planning staff to support this work. Projects are subject to required permitting, fees and regulatory requirements as outlined under Act.
Specifically, all Environment and Climate Change (ECC) processes must be followed, including wetland, watercourse, water/wastewater approvals and, if required, an Environmental Assessment. ECC always requires that the proponent do these assessments and this would be no different.
The Examiner then contacted the Department of Public Works, which is responsible for Nova Scotia Lands that will oversee the remediation of the Montague Gold Mines site, to find if and how that could affect the nature and timeline of the Port Wallace development.
According to Public Works spokesperson Deborah Bayer, the department is “aware of the Port Wallace Holding Project” and it has “considered the potential for interaction between the two projects.” However, she says, they see “no issue with the project proceeding as planned.”
In response to detailed questions about the approval process for the subdivision, spokesperson for HRM Brynn Budden tells the Examiner the Port Wallace Secondary Planning process is “currently in the technical review and policy development stage,” and says answers can be found in the October 2021 staff report.
Of course that staff report was issued before the province assumed the authority for development approvals in Port Wallace as a special planning area.
The Examiner then turned to Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change, which is responsible for contaminated sites in the province, to try to understand who will be responsible for sorting out all the apparently contradictory authorities responsible for what happens on Port Wallace Holdings lands owned by Clayton Developments, the Montague Gold Mines site that belongs to Natural Resources and Renewables (NRR), and Barry’s Run, which was purchased by HRM in 1976.
Spokesperson Tracy Barron offers some welcome clarity on all three:
Montague Gold Mines Site: NRR have submitted the environmental site assessment report/phase two that was due by May 17, 2022. This report is currently under review. An environmental site assessment outlines the type and extent of contamination at a location.
Barry’s Run: The environmental site assessment report/phase two is due from NRR on May 9, 2022.
Port Wallace Development Site: The developer will conduct any required remediation. The developer requested an extension to the submission of the environmental site assessment report/phase two. That is currently under review. A remedial action plan, confirmation of remediation and record of site condition and any other required closure forms are currently due October 3, 2022. That could be impacted by an extension.
Barron adds that an environmental assessment is “not required for housing developments unless it will cause an impact to two or more hectares of wetland.”
If it does, Barron says, the project “would need to be evaluated to see if an EA [environmental assessment] is required.” She points out that even if an EA is not required, “operational level approvals” could be mandatory for, among other things, watercourse or wetland alterations, water and wastewater extension approvals.
And crucially, Barron specifies:
Special planning designations do not impact the need for the appropriate environmental approvals for a development. We encourage any developer to reach out to us well in advance of their planned work/start date to ensure they undergo all the required processes.
What do the experts say?
Michael Parsons knows a lot about historic gold mine tailings. In 2012, Parsons was lead author on a landmark report that looked at tailings at 14 of the province’s 64 historic gold mine districts, and found arsenic concentrations up to 10,000 times the current Nova Scotia guideline of 31 mg/kg for arsenic in soil.
Parsons is a research scientist in environmental chemistry with Natural Resources Canada in Dartmouth, and one of the historic mine sites he and his team studied was at Montague Gold Mines, just 20 minutes from his office.
Parsons confirms that the photographs below that were taken recently at Barry’s Run definitely look like fine-grained tailings, and says this is not surprising, especially in spring when melting snow and ice tend to erode tailings from the Montague Mines site.
The bulk of the older tailings are probably still buried below more organic-rich sediment in the wetlands along Barry’s Run, but there has always been ongoing erosion at Montague that transports some of the tailings on this floodplain further downstream into Lake Charles. This is yet another reason why active reclamation of this area, including diversion of surface waters and erosion-control measures, is so important at the Montague Mine.
As Parsons points out, the contamination from the Montague Gold Mines doesn’t stop at Barry’s Run. Also at risk is Lake Charles, which is the headwater lake in the Shubenacadie watershed, discharging south towards Lake Micmac and also north towards Lake William.
A 2021 study led by Allison Clark and published by the journal, Science of the Total Environment, looked at arsenic and mercury contamination in Lake Charles sediments and “unexpectedly” found the highest arsenic levels in the uppermost sediment levels on the lake bottom, suggesting that highly contaminated sediments that had been deposited historically were migrating upwards.
The findings of Clark and her co-authors are, to put it mildly, worrisome:
Peak arsenic and mercury levels were about 290 times and 8 times, respectively, above thresholds where biological harm is expected. Despite closure of mining operations in about 1940, modern sediments in Lake Charles now reflect the highest concentrations of arsenic in the >200-year-record.
The authors note that in addition to the impacts of the historic mine tailings, the lake ecosystems now face “multiple stressors, including urbanization and climate change.”
One of Clark’s co-authors on the study is Joshua Kurek, associate professor of environmental science at Mount Allison University.
The Examiner contacted Kurek to ask if he thinks particular precautions should be taken to contain historic mine tailings, particularly in an urban area and upstream from a major lake system, given that climate change is bringing more intense rainfall to Atlantic Canada, and predicted to bring more precipitation and more intense rainfall events to HRM. His reply:
Extreme rainfall events will increase inputs of materials from landscapes into waterways. Further urbanization and “hardening” of surfaces through road construction, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks, etc. will also change how materials move from land to nearby waterways.
The Examiner also asked Kurek for his views on the wisdom of putting in a dense suburb with nearly 5,000 homes in Port Wallace before the remediation plans to contain the tailings at Montague Gold Mines are even developed.
Kurek’s response is unequivocal:
Should residences be developed on landscapes with contaminated tailings? Absolutely not until remediation is undertaken. More disturbances and other human activities near to historical gold mines will increase risk of human exposure to elevated contaminants from tailings within the soils and sediments of nearby ecosystems.
With cautionary words like that from the experts, it could be said that Minister Lohr and the Executive Panel on Housing in HRM have been warned that the Port Wallace planning area is indeed “special.”
 The questions sent to Kevin Neatt, Clayton Developments’ director of planning and development, were:
- Is there an updated plan with numbers of units and timeline for the proposed Port Wallace Holdings development? How many units in total and how many years to put them in? (The only timeline I seem to have found is a concept plan from a 2016 presentation that shows it being a 15-year project.)
- Referring to that same concept plan, it shows an access road to the Forest Hills Extension going in in year six. Is that still the plan? If so, are there any concerns about traffic congestion that might be caused on Waverley Road?
- According to the Executive Council on Housing in HRM, the Port Wallace Special Planning Area involves “Clayton Developments and 3 other landowners, up to 4900 units (phased development plan), shovel ready for Fall 2022.” How many acres does the Clayton Developments plan cover, how many of those 4900 units, and do you think it will be shovel-ready this fall?
- I understand that any remediation work on the contamination on the Port Wallace Holdings lands will be undertaken by the developer, that you have asked for an extension to the submission of the environmental site assessment report/ phase 2, and that a remediation action plan is required by October 3, 2022. Can you confirm this, and offer any information on the status of these reports/plans?
- Has Clayton already reached out to NS Environment and Climate Change about the required processes – which can range from an environmental assessment to operational level approvals for things like watercourse / wetland alterations, on-site sewage approvals, water and wastewater extension approvals?
- Have concerns about the risk of mobilizing historic tailings and arsenic contamination in Barry’s Run if stormwater runoff is not managed well caused Clayton to revise any of its plans for the proposed development? (unit density, number of roofs, distance from Barry’s Run, amount of impermeable surfaces, etc)
- How many of the units planned are individual separate homes, how many attached homes, and how many are multi-storey / multiple occupancy? Will any have solar installations or charging facilities for EVs?
- How many will be affordable housing (and how is that defined?)
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In addition to the environmental issues noted (which should be enough in a rational world to kill the development), this is also a proposal for another car-centric suburban sprawl-increasing development plan, with a very low walkability score, little connection to public transit, adding very high unit costs for installation and long-term maintenance of municipal services such as electricity, communications (phone and internet), water, sewers, pavements including sidewalks, street lighting, snow clearance, etc… This is not HRM’s needed urban expansion but added suburban sprawl that is bad-for-residents’ health and budgets for many many decades after both the developers and the current provincial government have faded into history…
After reading this article I side with the environment. I feel that this special planning area should be left alone, or even better receive special attention to help mitigate the effects of the tailings. No idea what that might be. Not an environmental scientist.
As a resident of South Dale, who is poor and disabled. I still feel the Eisner wetlands development should go through.
However as a poor and disabled resident of Nova Scotia I have no money, no power and no say.
Great report. I can’t imagine knowing about this contamination and still purchasing a property or even trusting that the developer has “remediated” the site.