(This article first appeared in the Halifax Examiner on January 25, 2019.)
For many years, when the St. Mary’s River Association (SMRA) held meetings in Sherbrooke on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, the group members’ purpose was primarily to report on the headway they were making in their efforts to achieve their vision of “Health for our river, the Atlantic salmon and our community.”
Members would gather in the St. Mary’s Education and Interpretive Centre, which serves as a “salmon museum” that volunteers from the community built in 2001 with financial help from supporters of their cause.
The interpretive centre is a testament to the storied history of the river. It is filled with exhibits of fly-fishing gear through the ages, photos of species at risk such as wood turtles, and of huge Atlantic salmon specimens that could once be caught in the river. There is also a display devoted to famous anglers who have fished in the river over the decades, including the legendary American baseball player, Babe Ruth.
Past issues of SMRA’s annual newsletters offer a glimpse of the astounding amounts of unpaid time, energy, and enthusiasm that people in rural communities devote to trying to make their small parts of the world better and healthier places. The tone of the newsletter is always upbeat, the reports brimming with optimism and positivity.
The SMRA meeting held this week was not.
This time the subject was not the St. Mary’s River and how to improve it, but Atlantic Gold’s proposed open-pit gold mine and how to stop it.
Years of volunteer work at stake
Since the SMRA was formed in 1979, its members have put in countless hours of volunteer work on projects to try to improve the health of the river and the local economy that revolves around it. The aim, according to SMRA president Scott Beaver, is to restore the river and the salmon population to a state that will permit a catch-and-release fishing season in the river.
In 2017, 60,000 salmon fry and 21,000 sea trout fry were released into the St. Mary’s River, and SMRA also promoted recreational and tourism opportunities in and around the river.
In recent years, with financial support from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and other sponsors, SMRA has worked on $1 million worth of restoration on almost 20 kilometres of river habitat. It is the only river in Nova Scotia with a salmon recovery plan.
SMRA members are deeply concerned that a gold mine near the St. Mary’s River would reverse years of their hard work restoring the river habitat for salmon and other aquatic species, and pollute it for many years to come with toxic chemicals from the mine waste.
The proposed mine is part of what Atlantic Gold calls the “Moose River Consolidated Project,” which you can read about here or here. Atlantic Mining NS (formerly D.D.V. Gold), a subsidiary of Atlantic Gold, has planned the mine for Cochrane Hill, very close to the river and about 13 km from Sherbrooke.
Cochrane Hill would be one of four open-pit mines that the company has planned along the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. In a television interview, Steven Dean, CEO and Chair of Atlantic Gold, a Vancouver-based company with subsidiaries in both Australia and Canada, described the gold mines as the company’s “string of pearls.”
“It’s almost like blood”
SMRA president, Scott Beaver, says he finds it “sickening” to hear the mines described that way.
Beaver grew up in Sherbrooke, the son of motel and restaurant owners who also ran a small guiding business. His parents still live and own businesses in the historic town. His earliest memories involve the river, where they swam and canoed, and where, even as a boy, he used to guide anglers to salmon pools.
“So it’s almost like blood,” he says of the St. Mary’s River. “It’s part of me.”
Today, Beaver is spearheading a campaign begun by SMRA called “NOPE” – No Open Pit Excavation. Its purpose, he says, is to draw attention to the proposed gold mine at Cochrane Hill and to gather support to oppose it.
More than 2,000 people have signed the NOPE petition, and the campaign has found “Friends of St. Mary’s River” in nine other groups in the province. The entire SMRA meeting on January 23 was devoted to the NOPE campaign.
Beaver says SMRA and others in the NOPE campaign have had a preliminary meeting with a legal representative from the Millbrook First Nation, where there is concern over the Beaver Dam mine proposal.
Atlantic Gold declines to answer questions
I had hoped to get some answers from Atlantic Gold about its gold interests in the province and public concerns over its environmental impact. So a couple of weeks ago, I sent an email to Atlantic Gold’s communications manager, Dustin O’Leary, with a list of questions. The response I received from O’Leary stated, “At this point, Atlantic Gold has elected not to participate in the series of articles you are writing.”
With that door closed, I turned to the project description for the Cochrane Hill mine that the company submitted to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) in September 2018.
It says the open pit will be nearly a kilometre long, half a kilometre wide, and 170 metres deep. That’s nearly the length of Dartmouth’s Lake Banook, and 14 times as deep, considerably bigger than the crater currently being excavated in Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy Mine in Moose River, the province’s very first open-pit gold mine.
The company plans to extract 43 million tonnes of rock from the Cochrane Hill mine between 2022 and 2027, producing 30 million tonnes of waste rock, and 8.6 million tonnes of toxic tailings that will be managed and stored in above-ground facilities.
According to Atlantic Gold, its tailings management facility will “operate under surplus water conditions and require a discharge,” but how that “surplus water,” which will be anything but safe, will be discharged, has yet to be decided. Nor is there any mention of who would continue to conduct and pay for the monitoring of the tailings facilities, which can leak or break decades — even centuries — after a mine has closed.
The mine will pipe water for gold extraction from Archibald Lake or the St. Mary’s River, and according to an SMRA fact sheet, it will use up to 50,000 litres a day, and 500 million litres at start-up.
The project description says the mine will employ about 220 people, “both salaried and hourly personnel,” who will be working in 12-hour shifts, four days on and four off.
Atlantic Gold plans to operate the mine for six years, after which the site will be reclaimed and monitored for “typically two to three years post-reclamation,” measures designed “to enable eventual walk away from the site [sic].”
The company also intends to re-route three kilometres of the Number 7 Highway. Its plan is to haul 170 tonnes of “gold concentrate” ore in 58,500-kilogram trucks from Cochrane Hill to the Moose River Touquoy mine for final processing. The trucks will ply 97 kilometres of Highway 7, and then another 21 kilometres on Highway 224 to the Beaver Dam Cross Road, or 118 kilometres of public — taxpayer-funded — roads.
In its project description, Atlantic Gold says it intends to ask the Nova Scotia Department of Transport and Infrastructure Renewal for an exemption on the current 41,500-kg weight restriction on part of the Number 7 Highway, and for another exemption on spring weight restrictions on the Mooseland Road.
“It’s a big concern,” says Scott Beaver, who hears from a lot of people anxious about the traffic and the effect on the roads. “Obviously the gold mine’s not going to fix the roads after they beat them all up.”
And then there’s what will happen to tourism
He is also troubled by the effects a mine could have on tourism. “Our whole community is built on tourism, built on that river,” he tells me after the meeting. “We thrive off tourism. Sherbrooke Village is here. We have eco-tourism on the go, canoeing and paddling.”
But what about the value of creating jobs to help keep young people home in Nova Scotia?
“Who’s going to move here for six years?” Beaver responds. “Everything after that will just be a big mess. The tailings pond, the effluent from that, the drainage that’s going to happen from that.” During the SMRA meeting, members pointed out that there is no guarantee that local people will be hired, and employees could just be shifted from one of the four mines to another, as not all will be in operation for the entire period.
But all of those concerns pale in comparison to those about the river, which were at the heart of the SMRA meeting.
Lewis Hinks, Atlantic Salmon Federation program director for Nova Scotia and PEI, says that the St. Mary’s River is an “index” river that helps determine the health of population of Southern Upland Atlantic Salmon found in southern and eastern Nova Scotia. Hinks adds that consultations are ongoing to have Atlantic salmon in the entire region added to the list of Wildlife Species At Risk.
“If we want to protect and save this species in this area, then we need a river that is healthy with a reasonable population on which we can build,” Hinks says. He has “some optimism” about their ability to stop the mine because they have sound science against it.
Kris Hunter, president of the Nova Scotia Salmon Association, agrees that those opposed to the mines have a very strong scientific case.
He notes the mine’s proximity to the St. Mary’s River, and particularly to McKeens Brook that is crucial to the salmon population, especially during hot dry periods when the fish need refuge in cooler pools of water. “If you look at any sort of water extraction, or any changes to hydrology, it can exacerbate all that,” Hunter says.
Hunter says his group submitted its concerns to the CEAA on all the proposed Atlantic Gold mines; the ones at Beaver Dam and 15-Mile Stream are in the area where the Nova Scotia Salmon Association is running its West River Sheet Harbour project to reduce the effects of acid rain on the river.
Even with science on their side, however, Hunter says that environmental processes are not designed to reject projects. “That’s not the way they are constructed in their legislation, so the [environmental assessment] process isn’t going to stop it.”
Asked whether he believes the mine will be approved despite the scientific arguments against it, Hunter laughs and says it’s difficult to answer. But he believes that as the project gets more publicity, it will also come into the “political forum,” which could, he says, “have more impact than the [environmental] assessment process itself.”
Scott Beaver tells me that the tailing facilities planned for the Cochrane Hill mine would drain into bodies of water that flow into some of the best spawning grounds for Atlantic salmon, the Glenelg Lake where salmon, wood turtles, and snapping turtles go during times of low water in the summer. And Archibald Lake, where the company wants to source water, Beaver says, is one of the most popular trout-fishing lakes in the entire area. He says the NOPE campaign is consuming enormous amounts of time which otherwise could be spent on projects to restore the river.
Atlantic Gold tries to make friends
Last year, Atlantic Gold sent representatives to introduce the project to the St. Mary’s River Association, and consultants together with company representatives have given a couple of presentations in the community, and held one “open house” in Sherbrooke in March 2018.
Gwen Boutilier, SMRA treasurer, attended that open house. “I felt very uncomfortable after my discussions with them,” she tells me. “They try to make you feel like they’re your friend and I walk away with the feeling they’re not. They’re just doing their job.”
Apart from the fate of the river and its salmon population, Boutilier is also concerned about her own water well, which is shallower than the proposed open pit. She lives just 1300 metres from the mine site and fears that if the water table is altered, her water will just disappear.
Boutilier thinks the best bet for local economic development is a healthy river with a catch-and-release salmon fishery, and the associated spinoffs with fishing guides, camps, and outfitters.
Earlier this year, Atlantic Gold offered members of SMRA a tour of its Touquoy gold mine at Moose River. If the company thought it would assuage fears with some slick videos and firsthand views of what an open-pit gold mine looks like, it clearly didn’t judge its audience very well.
Asked if he was favourably impressed, Scott Beaver replied, “Absolutely not! It’s a moonscape. It’s a giant wasteland. I can’t even picture that, for the life of me, on Cochrane Hill. It almost brings tears to my eyes. I viewed the effluent that’s coming out of there, the geo-tubes, all that stuff, it’s, it’s … preposterous to have that coming this way.”