Cover photo: Touquoy open pit gold mine at Moose River. Photo courtesy Raymond Plourde
On October 17 and 18, mining industry representatives and between five and 10 government officials will gather at the Alt Hotel at the Halifax Airport for the province’s first-ever “gold show.”
The gold show is being organized by the Mining Association of Nova Scotia (MANS), and sponsored — to the tune of $52,000 — by Nova Scotia Department of Energy and Mines. Apparently journalists are not welcome; when I asked for an invitation, I was told that there would be no media events. MANS describes the gold show as a “private event.”
Outside the airport hotel, people from all over the province are planning to gather to protest the gold show and what they call the “destructive open-pit gold mining” in Nova Scotia.
Although people in the Halifax Metro area may not be aware of the full extent of the on-going gold rush in Nova Scotia, in some parts of the province, it has been impossible to ignore.
The village of Moose River is no more, having given way to a giant gash in the earth that is the Touquoy open pit gold mine, owned by Australia’s St. Barbara Limited that acquired Atlantic Gold in July this year, which I wrote about here. The company has three more open pit gold mines planned for the Eastern Shore, at Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream, and Cochrane Hill on the St. Mary’s River.
Government geologists have been exploring for gold on Warwick Mountain in the Cobequid Hills of northern Nova Scotia, and prepared a Request for Proposals to lure mining companies into the area to continue the hunt for gold in the French River watershed, which supplies Tatamagouche with its drinking water.
Residents of Piedmont, nestled in a valley between New Glasgow and Antigonish, were rudely awoken in February this year when a helicopter buzzed low over their homes, dragging something behind it.
Trudi Rhynold, who owns a farm in the area, told me she thought the helicopter was losing parts, and it was so close to the treetops, she thought it was going to crash. She called the Trenton airport to alert them, and was told that these were “gold miners.” She also complained to the RCMP that the helicopter, which returned several times, was disturbing her animals and the dogs she boards.
Another Piedmont resident, Joyce Richard, told me that when she looked out the window to see what the helicopter was doing, she thought it was carrying a bomb behind it. She said that before that, she had had no idea there was going gold exploration going on in her community.
In an email, Ian Bliss, the CEO of the company that is doing the exploration, Northern Shield Resources, told me that he believes more than 150 people in the area have been consulted, and he maintained that:
Those consulted, generally supported exploration because of the potential that it could lead to a mine which would bring jobs, and other economic and social benefits.
However, Joyce Richard is dead set against any gold mining in the area, calling it “a dirty business.”
“I don’t care if it brings in 25 million jobs,” she told me over the phone. If they ever do try to open a mine in Piedmont, Richard believes there would be a “war” in the community.
Gold fever spawns division
Wherever gold fever spreads, it sows deep divisions in communities. Some believe industry and government messages about the economic development and jobs that gold mines would bring.
Others argue that gold mining is a boom-and-bust industry, with short-lived jobs that are not worth the environmental destruction, and toxic legacy of tailings that can last for a thousand years, or more.
Three previous gold rushes — in the late 1800s and mid-1900s — have left the province with 360 abandoned mines in 64 “gold districts,” many contaminated with arsenic and mercury. To clean up just two of them, at Montague Mines in Dartmouth and Goldenville in Guysborough County, Nova Scotians will be footing the hefty bill of nearly $48 million.
With a 21st-century gold rush now well underway, groups of concerned citizens have been springing up all over the province to oppose it.
So far, people in the Metro area have been spared such divisions or difficult decisions about mineral exploration and mining in and around the city. No one is seeking permission to open a new mine on the outskirts of Halifax or Dartmouth.
But maybe it’s just a matter of time before that happens.
Gold fever coming to town?
Between February and June 2019, a company called 3091829 Nova Scotia Limited took out 10 mineral exploration licences in and around Metro.
The 10 licences comprise 546 claims and cover 8,839 hectares, almost the size of the city of Halifax.
Some are very close to two lakes that supply Halifax and Dartmouth with their drinking water — Lake Pockwock and Lake Major.
The Department of Energy and Mines (DEM) Registration of Claims, NovaROC, shows that 3091829 Nova Scotia Limited holds three mineral exploration licences in Upper Hammonds Plains, just south of the Halifax water supply area at Lake Pockwock, and the proposed protected wilderness area around it.
The same company holds seven more exploration licences that cover parts of Lower Sackville, the Bedford area, and Dartmouth, one of which (EL 53213) appears to overlap the Dartmouth water supply area of Lake Major.
When I tweeted about this, attaching a map showing the proximity of the exploration licenses to the watersheds, Halifax Water replied, “The exploration licenses are extensions of older ones. We are aware & review annually as part of our Source Water Protection program.”
Thing is, the Halifax Water tweet wasn’t quite right. The large exploration licences obtained by 3091829 Nova Scotia Limited close to the Halifax and Dartmouth water supply areas were taken out this year. Department of Energy and Mines spokesperson Gary Andrea confirmed to me that they were “new, first year licences.”
After an email inquiry to Halifax Water about those licences, Reid Campbell, director of water services, replied that as part of their source water protection plan, Halifax Water conducts an annual review of new and existing licences, and:
Our 2019 review was done early this year, prior to the first of those licences being taken out so we were not aware of these specific licences. In our experience the process of notifying water utility operators provides us ample opportunity to make our concerns known and to mitigate any concerns.
I also asked whether Halifax Water has considered asking the Department of Energy and Mines to close areas adjacent to protected watersheds to mineral exploration. His reply:
Halifax Water has not made a specific request to close off areas to mineral exploration, however we have had informal discussions with Nova Scotia Environment and Nova Scotia Lands and Forests [sic] on this issue as we manage a variety of issues related to source water protection.
The exploration licences obtained by 3091829 Nova Scotia Limited are not the only ones in and around the Metro area. There are others held by individuals or companies, but they are smaller, and some have been held since 2013.
Nevertheless, five exploration licences — numbers 53391, 52785, 52786, 53391 and 51194 — appear to be partially or wholly inside the Dartmouth Water Supply Area. Two of them belong to Conrad Brothers Limited (NovaROC ID # 202294), a group of companies involved in trucking, quarrying, and soil remediation.
NovaROC doesn’t specify what minerals licence-holders are exploring for; it is only when licences expire and prospectors file reports that the mineral findings are published in the NovaScan database.
However, HRM is riddled with historic gold-mining sites.
Four licences — numbers 52971, 52326, 53293 and 53101 — all taken out by different individuals between February and July this year, appear to overlap with the old Montague gold mines in Dartmouth. That is one of the contaminated sites that Nova Scotians are paying many millions of dollars to remediate. The Request for Proposals for a closure plan for Montague Mines was issued by the Crown corporation, NS Lands Inc., in 2018, and awarded in October that year to Intrinsik Corp, EcoMatrix Incorporated, Wood Canada Limited, and Klohn Crippen Berger Ltd.
And yet, DEM continued issuing mineral exploration licences for the Montague historic gold mining site in 2019, months after the group of consultants had been hired to come up with a closure plan for it.
Open for exploration & exploitation
These days anyone can register with NovaROC and easily take out a mineral exploration licence online. Landowners are not consulted or even involved, and the person staking claims on NovaROC would not know from the Registry of Claims whose property is involved.
Some companies and individual prospectors have many dozens of exploration licences, with thousands of claims.
According to NovaROC, D.D.V. Gold, the Australian predecessor of Atlantic Gold that operates the Moose River mine, has more than 220 active exploration licences in the province. One of them (EL 09362) abuts the boundary of Kejimkujik National Park.
Another company, Transition Metals, is promoting its gold finds on licences in the Cape Breton Highlands. There are also more than a dozen leases that border on the Margaree River Wilderness Area or Cape Breton Highland National Park.
Meguma Gold Corp. boasts on its website that it holds 11,205 claims for “179,280 hectares of exploration potential in an emerging gold camp,” which is how it describes our province. That’s more than 18 times the size of Halifax.
Osprey Gold Development Ltd. says it has five gold projects in the province.
On its website, Northern Shield Resources — the company behind the helicopter survey that so frightened Trudi Rhynold and Joyce Richard — says it is exploring for gold on 24 licences covering 300 square kilometres between New Glasgow and Antigonish on a property it calls “Shot Rock.” Its subsidiary, Seabourne Resources, is drilling for gold and other minerals near Five Islands, on the Parrsboro shore.
Precious little of the province is off limits for mineral exploration, as detailed in the first of four articles on mining in Nova Scotia that I wrote for the Halifax Examiner and Cape Breton Spectator in 2018, before Geoscience & Mines was moved to DEM from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR):
According to DNR spokesperson Bruce Nunn, the only areas that are not open to mineral exploration and mining in Nova Scotia are protected wilderness areas, nature reserves, beaches and provincial parks, and lands such as national parks and First Nation reserves.
“However,” he said, “in some cases, and when permission is granted by the federal government, mineral rights may be issued over federal lands.”
The Mineral Resources Act provides property owners in the province no real protection from mineral exploration. Yes, holders of licences are obliged to ask landowners for permission to come onto their land. But if a landowner were to refuse to grant permission, the letter of the law — Article 26 (1) of the Act — gives the licence-holder the right to seek permission from the minister of energy and mines to access that landowner’s property.
What lies underground belongs to the Crown.
And right now, a lot of people are interested in searching that underground for gold. The latest gold rush is fuelled by high gold prices that some analysts attribute to Trump’s tweets and policies on trade and tariffs. But the gold fever in Nova Scotia is being fanned (and financed) by the Department of Energy and Mines, and by MANS, to which it provides grants through the Mineral Resources Development Fund.
If a municipality decides to seek protected status for its watershed, it can select the activities it wants prohibited in that area, and can apply to Nova Scotia Environment to ask that “mining / pit / quarry / peat operations” be forbidden in a water supply area.
This could be overruled by the minister of energy and mines, although such a move would be politically risky.
Watersheds around Metro were protected in 1994, when portions of the Lake Pockwock and Lake Major watersheds were designated Protected Water Areas. And in 2013, the Bennery Lake watershed at the Aerotech Park near the Halifax airport was also designated protected, with no mining permitted.
But of course, the areas surrounding the watersheds are open for mineral exploration.
Exploration leads to mines
Mineral exploration is done for a purpose. These days in Nova Scotia, the purpose is often to find gold. Especially in historic gold mining districts, and there are plenty of those in HRM.
So if gold is found, what then? Will the provincial government, so gung-ho about gold mining and throwing lots of dollars around to promote it, suddenly do an about-face and close the area down, refuse permits for advanced exploration, involving drilling and excavation and trenching, that could lead to a new gold mine? (Even HRM Mayor Mike Savage seems to have succumbed to gold fever, if this video of his visit to the Moose River mine is anything to go by).
Do the people in Metro and elsewhere in the province really want mines — particularly the extremely disruptive and destructive open gold pit mines needed to get at low grades of remaining gold deposits in historic mine districts — beside their water supplies?
And if not, should the provincial government be allowing mineral exploration in these areas?