This aging white house-like structure is an abandoned mine office from 1937 in Caribou, Nova Scotia. There is snow on the porch, the white clapboard shingles have seen better days, and there is an overturned chair on the porch in the snow. Photo: Joan Baxter
This 1937 mine office in Caribou, Nova Scotia, is a harmless legacy of an earlier gold rush in the province, unlike the tailings the gold mines left. Photo: Joan Baxter

The gold rush in Upper Seal Harbour near Goldboro began with the discovery of gold in 1892 by a fellow named Howard Richardson.

For the next 65 years, gold miners dug rock out of the earth in what was known as the “Richardson Belt” on the banks of Gold Brook Lake in Guysborough County.

In that time, they produced 57,846 ounces of gold.

Upper Seal Harbour Historic gold mining district on Gold Brook Lake on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. (Google Maps)

As of this writing, gold is selling for $2,427.36 per ounce, so the current value of that historic haul is more than $140 million, which, of course, would have been worth far, far more in the early 1900s, when most of the mining happened.

Where has all that wealth gone?

It’s certainly nowhere to be seen in and around Goldboro.

But the toxic tailings of the historic mines certainly are.

What’s left behind is toxic

Gold mine tailings are the crushed rock and processing effluents left over from the extraction of gold from the ore-bearing rock.

According to a landmark 2012 report by Mike Parsons et al, mining in the Upper Seal Harbour gold district produced 400,516 tonnes of crushed rock, generating the second largest volume of tailings in all 64 “gold districts” in Nova Scotia.

That puts the amount of historic tailings at the Upper Seal Harbour mine district second only to Goldenville, about 50 kilometres to the east, near Sherbrooke.

The tailings are very bad environmental news, laced with two heavy metals, both of which are very harmful to human and environmental health.

In the early 2000s, Parsons and his team sampled tailings up to four kilometres downstream from the former Richardson gold mine, at 20 sites along Gold Brook that flows out of Gold Brook Lake.

They found concentrations of arsenic of up to 72,000 milligrams (mg) per kilogram (kg) in the tailings along Gold Brook, a concentration 2,322 times higher than the 2014 Nova Scotia guideline of 31 mg/kg of arsenic in soil.

The tailings also contained levels of mercury as high as 120 milligrams per kilogram, or 18 times the Nova Scotia guideline of 6.6 mg/kg of mercury in soil.

Page 137 from Parsons et al. 2012

Parsons et al. noted that the contaminated tailings were discharged from the Richardson gold mine on the edge of Gold Brook Lake directly into the upper reaches of Gold Brook at the southern tip of the lake.

New gold rush, please meet old gold rush

That is where, more than a century later, Anaconda Mining wants to blast rock from the earth to mine gold again, but this time not from underground seams that were heavily mined in earlier gold rushes, but from two large open pits, at least for the first six years or so.

Related: Anaconda Gold joins the gold rush on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. Part 1. What do we know about its plans for a new open pit mine in Goldboro (and haven’t we been here before)?

Kevin Bullock, CEO of Anaconda, says the two open pits will separated by about 100 metres at the south end of Gold Brook Lake. One, Bullock says, will be about 1.1 kilometres long, the other about 600 metres.

Conceptual plan for Anaconda’s proposed gold mine around Gold Brook Lake, from its 2022 technical report.

As the Halifax Examiner reported in February, Bullock says Anaconda managed to do extensive exploration in the area without disturbing the tailings because the company didn’t drill there. Bullock is quoted extensively in that article:

“We drilled at various unique angles away from them, underneath them,” he says, and it is because the tailings are there that the company is planning two open pits, one on either side of the Gold Brook.

Another reason for the two pits, Bullock says, is that they don’t want to dam off the lake, which would “take out a watershed” and disturb the “water flow to the ocean.”

Anaconda will provide the province with a management plan for the historic tailings when it submits its environmental registration, he adds.

But, the tailings don’t appear to be Anaconda’s problem anyway.

Indemnifying Orex (and its successor)?

Anaconda Mining’s 430-page January 2022 technical report and feasibility study for its proposed Goldboro mine at the headwaters of Gold Brook, states five times that the government of Nova Scotia, “indemnified Orex in 1995 from any environmental liabilities resulting from historical mining activities,” provided old tailings areas are “not impacted during exploration or mining activities.”[1]

Orex Exploration was a very small, Quebec-based company that held the Goldboro property for nearly three decades, when Orex was acquired by Anaconda Mining in 2017.

Anaconda’s press release about the acquisition stated that one of the benefits of the arrangement was the “potential for gold producing operations” in the “mining friendly” jurisdiction of Nova Scotia.

Orex security filings with SEDAR begin only in 1997.

The 1999 Orex annual report, obtained using the web archive, Wayback Machine, provides a history of its exploration work on the site for the previous 10 years. That includes 1995, when it reported doing “several metallurgical tests and a detailed environmental assessment.” It makes no mention of historic tailings or indemnification.

The Orex SEDAR filings end in 2017, when it became a subsidiary of Anaconda. A search of those, including technical reports on the Goldboro site, turned up no mention of an indemnification from the province for the historic tailings.

The first real assessment of the historic gold mine tailings problem in Nova Scotia wasn’t done until Parsons and his co-authors undertook their study of 14 abandoned mine sites in the province between 2003 and 2006.

Before that, no comprehensive study had been done on the extent, contents, and potential risks posed by historic tailings, so it seems remarkable – at best – that the province would indemnify any company for environmental liabilities of historic tailings in 1995, almost a decade before the first major study of them was even done by Parsons and his team.

Parsons’ team found very high arsenic levels in tailings they sampled at the headwaters of Gold Brook (above), and high levels of mercury in the tailings samples (below).

The Examiner contacted the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables (DNRR) for details about the 1995 indemnity that Anaconda refers to in its technical report, and to ask whether there is indeed a record of it in provincial government files, and if so, if the indemnification still holds in 2022.

DNRR replied that it would take time to answer those questions. As of this writing, no answers have been received.

An email to Anaconda’s Kevin Bullock with questions about the indemnity was not answered.[2]

Along comes Nova Scotia Lands

Anaconda plans to register its Goldboro mining project adjacent to the Upper Seal Harbour historic tailings with Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change (NSECC) before the end of June, 2022.

As the Examiner reported here, this will be the second time the company has done so. The first time Anaconda registered the Goldboro mine with Nova Scotia Environment was back in 2018. The company then withdrew its application in 2019 after NSECC said the company had filed “insufficient” information, and a focus report would be needed.

That first proposal, Bullock told the Examiner, was “hogwash.” This time round, Bullock is confident Anaconda can get provincial approval for the mine within 18 to 24 months, and avoid a federal assessment.

Related: Anaconda joins the gold rush on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. Part 2: Anaconda aims to avoid a federal impact assessment for its proposed open pit gold mine, but some say the whole regulatory process in Canada is “rigged”

Coincidentally — and perhaps conveniently for Anaconda — shortly after the company announced it had signed a “Community Benefits Agreement” on January 11, 2022 with the Municipality of the District of Guysborough in advance of registering the Goldboro gold mine with the province, the provincial Crown corporation Nova Scotia Lands took the first step towards remediation of the historic tailings that are right in the middle of the proposed mine site.

One of the projects that Nova Scotia Lands is managing for the provincial government is the remediation of historic mine sites in the province.

In 2019, Nova Scotia Lands completed “closure plans” for just two historic mines; Montague Gold Mines in Dartmouth, and Goldenville, near Sherbrooke on the Eastern Shore. Neither seems to have progressed past the planning stage, at least not according to the Nova Scotia Lands webpage devoted to the project.

Historic mining sites at Montague in Dartmouth have been closed to the public because of high arsenic in the tailings from more than 150 years ago. Photo: Joan Baxter

In 2019, the CBC’s Michael Gorman reported that the provincial government would be spending $47.9 million to clean up those first two mine sites. Gorman quoted then-Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin, who told reporters that Montague and Goldenville were the two “most egregious” of the contaminated mine sites.

Related: Port Wallace Gamble. The real estate boom meets Nova Scotia’s toxic legacy, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Gorman also reported that after Montague and Goldenville, the next two historic gold mines that Lands and Forestry (now Natural Resources and Renewables) planned to look at for remediation were “the Caribou Mines and Oldham historic gold mines close to Upper Musquodoboit and the Halifax Stanfield International Airport, respectively.”

Well, no.

Apparently, plans have changed.

On February 16, 2022, Nova Scotia Lands issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for “Phase I/II environmental site assessments” to “identify and delineate environmental contamination” that “may represent materially significant environmental risks or liabilities, and to produce a recommendation for remediation” at both the Gold Brook and Lower Seal Harbour mine sites.

Gold Brook, officially known as the Upper Seal Harbour gold district, is where Anaconda has planned its new mine.

Lower Seal Harbour, south of Goldboro, is adjacent to the property where Pieridae Energy wanted to build a Liquefied Natural Gas plant and put in a new secondary road until it gave up on financing for that plan, and started talking about a floating LNG terminal instead.

Cleaning up tailings while producing new ones

The Examiner emailed questions about the decision to remediate the historic mine tailings to Nova Scotia Lands project manager Cory MacPhee:

  1. A mining company has already issued a technical and feasibility report for an open pit gold mine at the southern tip of Gold Brook Lake, which would have two open pits, on either side of the historic mine tailings. The company says it will be submitting its EA [Environmental Assessment] documents to Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change before the end of the second quarter of 2022. Was Nova Scotia Lands aware of this project before it issued the RFP?
  2. What exactly does an Environmental Site Assessment entail? Does it then lead to an Environmental Assessment for a clean-up of historic tailings? How long would this site assessment take? And an EA?
  3. Does this RFP affect the plans for a gold mine adjacent to the historic tailings? If so, how? Could the mine plans be delayed until such time as the site assessment has been completed? Or could the historic mine tailings clean-up occur at the same time as a mine is developed and in operation?
  4. Would NS Lands permit a mining company to submit a proposal for historical tailings management and clean-up, in response to the RFP for Gold Brook Lake and Seal Harbour Mine Sites? Could such a clean-up be combined with actual mining?
  5. Does this mean that the province will be paying for the clean-up at the site, and that a mining company working in the area will not have to cover any of the costs?

The reply came not from Nova Scotia Lands, but from Public Works spokesperson Deborah Bayer:

We were aware of the project. The environmental assessment process follows the Guidance supplied by the Canadian Council for Minister’s of Environment on assessing contaminated sites.  The current scope asks for Phase I and Phase II Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) complete with an estimate to remediate the tailing on Crown Lands. We anticipate having the completed Phase II ESA and remediation estimate by October 2022.

In our opinion, the RFP does not affect the plans for a gold mine adjacent to the historic tailings. There could be synergy between the two projects, if necessary.

We would not permit a mining company to submit a proposal for historical tailings management and clean-up at this time. There could be synergies between the projects.

The province is dealing with cleaning up historical mines sites on Crown Lands all over the province.

The Examiner sent some follow-up questions:

  1. When you speak of synergy, what does that mean, exactly?
  2. And could it mean that Nova Scotians might pay for the clean-up of the historic tailings that are on and around the mine site? Or would the mining company still be responsible for those costs, as the tailings are in their site?
  3. I understand that the company was indemnified for the tailings by the government. Is that correct? And if so, have other exploration and mining companies been given such indemnity?

Bayer replied:

Synergy, in this instance, refers to the potential for redundancy in sampling and reporting. The developer has invested time and money in assessing some of this area so we would hope to use this data and information for our project, and we would reciprocate with our information, once complete.

The Lower Seal Harbour and Goldbrook Lake sites are historic mine sites on the NSDNRR potentially contaminated sites list.  Our project involves a Phase 1 and 2 Environmental Site Assessment complete with a Class D estimate to remediate the site.

We are not aware of any indemnity issued for this site.

The Examiner then sent Bayer the passages from Anaconda Mining’s 2022 technical report and feasibility study, which speaks of the indemnification, and asked what it means and how it should be interpreted, in light of the RFP to prepare for the remediation of the tailings at the Gold Brook mine site.

The reply came not from Public Works, but from DNRR:

This file goes back to 1995. There was an indemnification agreed to at the time. We cannot offer a legal interpretation of a historical agreement.

As mentioned earlier, the Examiner asked for more clarification on the indemnification, what exactly it means and if indeed an agreement signed a generation ago in 1995 with a completely different company, before the tailings had even been assessed, is still valid.

If DNRR provides answers, we’ll update this article.

What is clear, however, is that Nova Scotians will be on the financial hook for cleaning up the mess left from nearly a century of gold mining in Goldboro.

Meanwhile, Ontario-based Anaconda Mining is gearing up to open a new gold mine right beside the tailings in Gold Brook, and start a whole new cycle of environmental upheaval, and produce a whole lot of new mine tailings that will go into a tailings facility that will have to be monitored and maintained for centuries to come.

Notes

[1] The Liberal government of Premier John Savage seems to have had a liking for signing indemnity agreements. If indeed it did indemnify Orex Exploration in 1995 from any environmental liabilities related to the historic tailings, as Anaconda states, that would have one of two remarkable indemnification arrangements the Liberal government signed off on that year. 1995 was also the year that the province signed an “Indemnity Agreement” with Northern Pulp’s predecessor, Scott Maritimes, which saved anyone who had anything to do with the mill facilities and its owners (a very long list of “indemnified parties”) harmless from any legal action in perpetuity, an agreement that Northern Pulp is using even now in its $450-million lawsuit against the province.

[2] The March 11, 2022 email to Anaconda CEO Kevin Bullock: “I’m following up on our earlier conversation, and also on Anaconda’s January 2022 technical and feasibility report. That report states that ‘Provincial regulators indemnified Orex in 1995 from any environmental liabilities resulting from historical mining activities, assuming that old tailings storage areas are not impacted during exploration or mining activities.’ I have gone through Orex SEDAR filings (which only start in 1997) and can find no record in those of an indemnification by the province. I am hoping you can help by providing the date and nature of the indemnification that provincial regulators provided for the historic tailings in the Golboro area. I’d also be grateful if you could let me know what the recent RFP [Request for Proposals] issued by NS Lands for a site assessment of those historic tailings will mean for Anaconda’s proposal for its mine in Goldboro.”


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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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  1. Maybe the price of gold mining in Nova Scotia should be not only cleaning up their own current mess but also contributing money to the province to clean up the plethora of previous messes. Relying on the good will of government to allocate money to do it hasn’t worked for about 100 years. Maybe it’s time to try a different strategy.