Shaw Group

The making of a toxic mess and the uncalculated cost of previous gold rushes

Toxic tailings from previous gold rush at Montague Mines in Halifax Regional Municipality remain exposed, and recreational users are exposed to them. Photo: Joan Baxter

This is Part 1 of a three-part story, an earlier version of which appeared in March 2020 in the Halifax Examiner, about the toxic legacy from historic gold mines in Nova Scotia, which its citizens will be paying many millions of dollars to try to clean up, and how the contamination at just one of these sites — Montague Mines in Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) — is still affecting lives today, and may also affect a large new residential subdivision that is proposed for nearby Port Wallace, between the Highway 107 extension and Waverley Road. 

It’s a complicated mess, with a lot of conflicting interests, some powerful players — the Shaw Group through its subsidiary Clayton Developments, and its president, former HRM Chief Administrative Officer Richard Butts — and different levels of government and public agencies.

It’s also been difficult to get clear answers to some straightforward questions about the situation, but I’ll get to that. 

In Part 1, we’ll set the scene with a look at gold mining in Nova Scotia and how we got to where we are. 

Historic gold mining districts in Nova Scotia

This tale begins with colonialism, with the theft of others’ lands and appropriation of natural assets that has always driven it.

In 1578, Queen Elizabeth I of England granted a patent to “adventurer” Sir Humphrey Gilbert, which gave her the right to one-fifth of any gold and silver he found in eastern North America. Gilbert’s expedition failed to make it across the ocean, so Elizabeth didn’t get her hands on any gold from what is today known as Nova Scotia.

In subsequent centuries, many settlers reported seeing gold in the province, and names such as Cap d’Or and Bras d’Or suggest that Acadians were well aware of its presence. But it wasn’t until news of the gold fever that was gripping Australia and California in the mid-1800s reached this part of the world that settlers started hunting for gold and taking its presence seriously.[1]

One of these was John Pulsiver, a farmer from what is now Chaswood in the Musquodoboit Valley. According to his own account, in 1860 Pulsiver was camping near Mooseland with three Mi’kmaq guides – James, Paul and Francis Paul. They had run out of provisions, so one of the party went off to procure supplies. Pulsiver waited in the forest, and happened to spy a piece of quartz in a nearby brook. When he broke it into pieces, he found pieces of gold.

Pulsiver took his news to Premier Joseph Howe, who reportedly scoffed at him, telling him to go home and mend his old shoes.

Pulsiver’s account, like that of several others wishing to claim they had been the first to “discover” gold in Nova Scotia, was published in the 1868 book by Alexander Heatherington called “The gold fields of Nova Scotia.”

Of course it would be misleading to say that Europeans “discovered” anything on this continent, including gold in Mi’kma’ki. The Mi’kmaq knew about the presence of gold, which they called wisawsuliewei, and would show it to European immigrants and visitors when they were guiding them. But they had no special fondness for the metal, and certainly didn’t mine it, polluting the water and destroying land that sustained them.

So it doesn’t really matter which of the settlers lays claim to the first gold find in Nova Scotia. What matters is that all the speculation about Pulsiver’s and others’ finds unleashed the first of three gold rushes in the province – one that lasted until 1874, a second from 1896 to 1903, and a third from 1932 until 1942. Continue reading Port Wallace Gamble: The real estate boom meets Nova Scotia’s toxic mine legacy (Part 1)

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In the shadow of Montague Gold Mines – how historic pollution is haunting big plans for developing Port Wallace

This is a story, an earlier version of which was published in the Halifax Examiner in March 2020, about the toxic legacy from historic gold mines in Nova Scotia, which its citizens will be paying many millions of dollars to try to clean up, and how the contamination at just one of these sites – Montague Mines in Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) – is still affecting us today.

This, the second in a series of three articles about historic gold mining that is coming back to haunt Nova Scotia, looks at how contamination from an old gold mining site is affecting plans for a large new subdivision planned in HRM. Part 1. can be read here.

Port Wallace 2016 presentation development map & schedule

For a few years there, things were chugging along well for Clayton Developments’ ambitious plans for a large new residential subdivision on hundreds of acres of woods and wetlands in Port Wallace.

At first glance it looks like an ideal place to put in a new subdivision. At least I imagine it does through a developer’s eyes.

Port Wallace and environs. Google satellite.

Located between the Waverley Road and the Forest Hills Extension, Port Wallace is not far from Burnside and Dartmouth Crossing, and there is good highway access to the Halifax airport. And the development site appears to be a lovely natural setting through which Barry’s Run flows, close to Lake Charles and Shubie Park.

Even if a few residents in adjacent communities had expressed concerns about several possible negative effects of the new subdivision, it looked as if nothing would get in the way of Clayton’s master plan for Port Wallace.

And then something did. But I’ll get to that.

First some background.

Potential for development … and for problems

HRM originally identified Port Wallace as a potential development area in its 2006 Regional Plan. Since then, it has undertaken a barrage of studies to assess its potential for development, and also potential problems.

A study by AECOM in 2013 looked at the possible effects that a subdivision in Port Wallace would have on the Shubenacadie Lakes sub-watershed.

At the heart of that sub-watershed is Lake Charles, which is close to the Port Wallace lands slated for residential development. The AECOM report noted that Lake Charles is particularly important in the lakes system, being the headwater lake that discharges both north and south:

Historical reports suggest that approximately 60% of its discharge flows north to William and on to Lakes Thomas, Fletcher and Grand. The remaining 40% of the discharge from Lake Charles flows south to Lakes Micmac and Banook and ultimately to Dartmouth Cove in Halifax Harbour.

Water flows from Lake Charles south to Lakes Micmac and Banook and then to Dartmouth Cove. Photo: Joan Baxter

AECOM also found that “the primary human activity impacting water quality is changes to land use resulting from development within the subwatershed.” (This should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the deterioration of water quality in Dartmouth lakes as subdivisions have mushroomed around them and homes have crowded their shores over the past half century.) Continue reading Port Wallace Gamble: The real estate boom meets Nova Scotia’s toxic mine legacy (Part 2)

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