Cover photo: the tailings facility at the Touquoy gold mine. Photo: Saint Mary’s River Association
Atlantic Gold’s manager of environment and permitting, James Millard, calls it a “spill” or a “loss of control” caused by a “gasket failure.”
By whatever name, the event happened on the night of January 3, 2019, at the company’s open pit gold mine at Moose River. It involved 380,000 litres of contaminant-laced slurry, which flowed from the processing plant where ore is crushed and gold extracted, and down a trench underneath the double-lined 500-metre pipe that should have been carrying the effluent to the tailings pond.
The leaked slurry flowed into a lined pond that Millard says was developed and designed for leaks.
During an open house that Atlantic Gold held in Sheet Harbour on Thursday to showcase one of three new gold mines that it wants to open on the Eastern Shore, Millard told me the incident was reported immediately to Nova Scotia Environment, as the amount exceeded spill limits. He said the department has inspected the site and been working with Atlantic Gold.
“We also worked with an independent consultant,” Millard said. “We’ve now excavated all the material and placed it in the tailings pond.” The main “contaminant of concern” is arsenic, he said, but it has all been contained.
There were low amounts of cyanide in the slurry, he added, but those did not exceed Nova Scotia regulations.
I sent questions about the leak to the Nova Scotia Department of Environment Thursday morning; as of publishing Friday morning, I’ve yet to hear back.
Poor time for bad news
The news of the effluent spill comes at a time when Atlantic Gold is working hard to convince the public along the Eastern Shore that its Touquoy Gold Mine and the three more it wishes to open at Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream, and Cochrane Hill are safe and not going to pose a threat to the environment — to the fragile networks of rivers, wetlands, and lakes that abound in the area, or to all the species of interest or at risk that depend on them.
At Thursday’s “open house,” more than a dozen representatives of Atlantic Gold and its consulting companies were on hand to field questions from a few dozen citizens who showed up at the Eastern Shore Wildlife Centre in Sheet Harbour to find out more about the open pit mine proposed for Fifteen Mile Stream.
Two dozen posters mounted around the room previewed material Atlantic Gold is preparing to submit to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency for the latest mine.
One entitled “Socio-economic Conditions” said that while in operation (a 2018 Atlantic Gold corporate presentation shows this would be for six years), the Fifteen Mile Stream mine would employ 289 people, and would provide $8.6 million in annual revenue for the federal government, $13 million for the province and $900,000 for the Halifax Regional Municipality.
According to Dustin O’Leary, communications manager for Atlantic Gold, that provincial revenue of $13 million per year includes all taxes and royalties on the gold.
There was no poster repeating boasts made recently by Sean Thompson, director of investor relations for Atlantic Gold, that the company is the “lowest cost gold producer in the sector.”
Nor was there a poster hinting at any risks of gold mining, or how much the mine could cost the province, which, as I wrote here, could be quite a lot in road repairs, and environmental monitoring long, long after the mine closes.
The event was a veritable charm offensive, plenty to drink and eat, and lots of Atlantic Gold swag for the taking.
The warm welcome and smiles were in sharp contrast to the company’s mean-spirited treatment of Wayne Oakley, whose home was expropriated for the Moose River mine in 2012.
Still, the genial consultants and staff did their best to reply to questions coming from some very well-informed citizens with profound knowledge of and concern for local ecosystems.
“They’re saying the right things,” said Charles Clattenburg of the Eastern Shore Wildlife Association, “but as we wrote to the Minister [of Environment and Climate Change Canada], can they prove it? Our association asked the minister for a guarantee of the quality of the water coming out.”
Clattenburg was referring to the water that would flow from the tailings pond to be constructed at Fifteen Mile Stream, which is not slated to undergo treatment before being released, unlike the effluent from the tailings facility at the Touquoy mine at Moose River.
Craig Hudson, chief metallurgist at Atlantic Gold, told me that water from the tailings management facility at the Moose River mine goes to an effluent treatment plant, where the arsenic is neutralized through a two-step process that oxidizes it and then involves the addition of iron to which the arsenic “sticks.” The resulting material is then filtered in geo-bags, he said. The “clean water” that filters through is released into Scraggy Lake.
This kind of effluent treatment will not happen at the other three proposed mines, where the final processing will not be done on-site. Rather, preliminary crushing will be done to produce concentrated ore at each mine site, and that ore will be trucked to the Moose River site for final gold extraction with cyanide.
According to Hudson, the mine tailings that would be produced at Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream, and Cochrane Hill should meet federal regulations for contaminants, and not require treatment.
This is what concerns Charles Clattenburg about the Fifteen Mile Stream mine plan. For years, his association has been working with the Nova Scotia Salmon Association to lime the West River that empties into Sheet Harbour, to try to reduce acidity and restore fish populations. They are encouraged by rebounding populations of salmon, and worried about anything that might jeopardize the progress.
“We’re not against development and jobs,” said Clattenburg. “But what we want to see is the environment protected.” The big unanswered questions for him are “accountability,” and how long the company will monitor the water coming out of the tailing ponds. He would like to see a process that would ensure companies can be held responsible for any mishaps.
“Look at what happened to the gold mine out west,” he said, referring to the environmental disaster caused by the 2014 failure of the tailings pond at the Mount Polley gold mine in British Columbia.
“Guess who’s doing the clean-up for that?” Clattenburg asked, rhetorically. It is estimated that taxpayers in BC are on the hook for about $40 million for cleaning up the Mount Polley mess.
“These things haunt you,” said Clattenburg’s brother, Barry.
Barbara Markovits of the Eastern Shore Forest Watch is another who attended the open house to study the posters and ask questions. She has been fighting to keep open pit gold mines out of the area since 2007, when D.D.V Gold first came to the Eastern Shore and proposed a mine at Moose River.
She was not impressed with much of what she saw in Sheet Harbour, noting that there were inaccuracies and omissions on several of the storyboards, and nothing at all to show the cumulative effects of the mines on watersheds.
“Effluent from Fifteen Mile Stream will eventually find its way into the East River,” she told me. “And the effluent from the Beaver Dam mine will go into the West River. So Sheet Harbour [where the rivers both empty] will be surrounded by mine effluent.”
Markovits is also concerned about the fate of Scraggy Lake, which is where the “clean” water from the Touquoy mine tailings treatment facility goes.
In 2018, Jim Turner, chair of the Eastern Shore Forest Watch, carried out water studies near that point of effluent discharge and found “significant” increases since 2017 in levels of arsenic and nitrates. “The increases were significant,” Markovits told me, “but not for the regulators.”
In response, Millard said there is “very little to no issue” with changes in Scraggy Lake, which Atlantic Gold is monitoring regularly. He said that the arsenic and nitrate levels “meet regulations.”
As for how long Atlantic Gold will monitor water quality coming out of its tailings ponds, Millard said that will continue until the water “meets requirements.” After that, levels of arsenic would normally continue to decrease. Modelling, he said, suggests there is no need to treat the effluent that would come from tailings ponds in the three new mine sites.
What happens next?
Atlantic Gold’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Beaver Dam mine is currently being evaluated by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA), and its findings should be released by the end of March, to be followed by a 30-day period of public comment.
According to Millard, the company expects to submit its EIS for Fifteen Mile Stream to the CEAA by April.
That will leave just one more mine proposal — that for Cochrane Hill — to be submitted to the federal government for environmental assessment. Even at this stage, there is strong opposition to the proposed mine from the Friends of the St. Mary’s River, which the Halifax Examiner covered here.
Dustin O’Leary told me that Atlantic Gold aims to have Fifteen Mile Stream open in 2020, but that it will depend on the environmental approval process. He said there will be no separate provincial assessment, that it is a “harmonized process” with the federal government.
Atlantic Gold’s Touqouy mine at Moose River underwent only a Class 1 provincial environmental assessment in 2007 and was not subjected to a federal assessment. Since then the original mining company, D.D.V. Gold from Australia, has transformed into Atlantic Mining NS, with Atlantic Gold its parent, and the original single mine at Moose River has expanded to four mines under the Moose River Consolidated Project.
The final processing of the ore concentrate from three additional mines at the Moose River site and the effect these additional tailings will have on the facility there do not figure into the original environmental approval and industrial approval for the Touquoy mine.
Calls from the Eastern Shore Forest Watch for a federal assessment of the entire Moose River project have gone unheeded.
“It’s about making money”
Citizen concerns about environmental impacts of the four mines that Atlantic Gold calls its “string of pearls” in “Canada’s backyard” certainly were nowhere to be seen or heard in the presentation that Atlantic Gold made to investors at the recent Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) annual convention in Toronto, at a session called “Atlantic Edge,” sponsored by the governments of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Mining Association of Nova Scotia and the Mining Industry of Newfoundland.
In her presentation, Atlantic Gold’s president, chief operating officer and director Maryse Belanger said that since Atlantic Gold consolidated the land for its four projects in 2014 for its “corridor regional program” in Nova Scotia, its share price had appreciated “substantially.”
Belanger highlighted the company’s “clear focus on margin,” saying, “I always say it’s not about making gold, it’s about making money.”
These messages were also absent from the posters at the Atlantic Gold open house in Sheet Harbour.
Update, March 18: Adele Poirier of Nova Scotia Environment sends the following statement:
The company reported the spill to the department on January 3. The next day, the department issued a directive to the company to hire a Site Professional (ie qualified engineer) to assess and contain the spill, and conduct the cleanup. The site professional was retained by the company and onsite that same day.
While any spill is a concern, this one happened under the best possible conditions for containment and cleanup. The estimated volume was 350,000 to 400,000 litres which froze on the ground along the pipeline as it was spilling, making it easier to contain and remove. No watercourses were affected.
Cyanide levels were below applicable guidelines. Arsenic levels ranged between 590-1100mg/kg, compared with background levels at the site of about 300mg/kg.
The majority of the cleanup has been done. The department is awaiting formal reports documenting the cleanup.