Port Wallace Gamble: The real estate boom meets Nova Scotia’s toxic mine legacy (Part 1)

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.

The gold was mined in 64 “gold districts” in the province, in more than 360 mines. The historic gold mines were relatively small underground operations. Communities often developed around them and their names attest to their mining heritage – Caribou Mines, Goldenville, Goldboro, Gold River, Montague Gold Mines, to name a few.

But any great wealth that may have been generated in those gold districts – like the rich gold veins mined in them – is long gone.

Atlantic Gold open pit Touquoy gold mine at Moose River, Nova Scotia. Photo: Raymond Plourde / Ecology Action Centre

One of the more prominent early gold miners – French national Damas Touquoy who mined the area around Moose River – came to Nova Scotia from gold fields in Australia, and eventually went home again to France, where he died in 1898.

Today, there is a massive open pit mine in the area, named after Touquoy. It is owned by the Australian firm St. Barbara, which acquired Atlantic Gold in 2019 for the tidy sum of $722 million. Atlantic Gold, now a “St. Barbara company,” has plans for three more open pit gold mines on the Eastern Shore, including the highly controversial one at Cochrane Hill on the St. Mary’s River.

As in the past, it is unlikely that the wealth the gold mining is generating will stick around, or do much for the long-term health of local communities. Profits will go into the accounts of shareholders and executives.

According to the yearly reports that Atlantic Gold is obliged to make to Natural Resources Canada under the Canadian Extractive Industries Transparency Measures Act (ESTMA), in 2018, the first full year of production at the Moose River mine, the company reported that it paid $0 in taxes to any level of government, and just $1.18 million in royalties to the province on its production of 90,531 ounces, which at average gold prices that year would have been worth about $149 million.

In its 2019 report to ESTMA, Atlantic Mining NS, the Atlantic Gold affiliate that now operates the Moose River mine, reported that it again paid $0 in taxes to the provincial and federal governments. Its royalties to the government of Nova Scotia amounted to just $1.33 million.

Unlike the underground gold mines of yesteryear in Nova Scotia, today’s miners are going after minuscule amounts of gold in the rocks. St. Barbara reports that for its Touquoy mine in the last quarter of 2020, the grade was 1.02 grams (about the weight of a thumbtack) of gold per tonne. During that quarter, the mine had record production of 29,067 Troy ounces of gold (a Troy ounce weighs 31 grams), and produced more than 2 million tonnes of ore (gold-bearing rock) and waste rock.

So for each ounce of gold (think 31 thumbtacks) that St. Barbara produced, it had to blast and remove nearly 70 tonnes of ore and waste, more than the weight of 12 elephants. That was in just three months. At that rate, the waste and ore rock produced in a year would have been 8 million tonnes, about one and a half times the weight of the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Giza) in Egypt.

Modern gold mining creates staggering mountains of waste rock and vast quantities of tailings (what is left after the ore is crushed and processed to extract the gold), which have to be safely confined, contained, monitored and managed in perpetuity. The long-term liability for that lies not with mining companies, but with the public and future generations.

Arsenic and old mines

If there is little evidence of the wealth from historic gold mining in Nova Scotia, there is plenty of evidence of the mining itself. One very tangible legacy of three gold rushes is three million tonnes of tailings, many of which are laced with dangerous metals.

For many years after mining stopped, the toxic legacy of the tailings in the province was mostly forgotten, or just ignored.

It might have stayed that way had it not been for John Hartlen, a resident of Waverley, a community north of Dartmouth (part of HRM) and an important historic gold mining area. In 1976, Hartlen was admitted to the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax suffering from what turned out to be “chronic arsenic intoxication” caused by arsenic contamination in the dug well from which he and his family got their drinking water. The level of arsenic in the water was 500 times the safe level.

The contamination came from historic mine waste rock that was used to line the well.

This galvanized the province into action. The government immediately put together an arsenic “task force,” which found contamination of water in both drilled and dug wells in Waverley. It recommended that residents cease using groundwater, and that the city provide the population with treated drinking water from its water supply.

But Waverley was just one area affected by historic gold mining. The task force also found arsenic in tailings, which are generally grey or brown and resemble sand, around several other historic gold mining districts in Nova Scotia.

One of the more contaminated sites was Montague Mines – located just to the east of the Forest Hills Extension between Loon Lake and Lake Charles in HRM. Prospectors had found gold there in 1862, and the area was mined continuously until 1928, then on and off until 1940, as the Halifax Examiner reported here.

After the arsenic task force submitted its report, for some years there was not a great deal of investigation of historic mine tailings.

Research picked up again in the early 2000s when Michael Parsons, a young environmental chemist, decided to have a look at what he calls the “smattering of work” dating back to the 1970s, which had been done on the tailings in Nova Scotia.

In an interview in his office in Dartmouth, Parsons told me that when he started that work he had just joined the Geological Survey of Canada, and was familiar with historic mine sites in California where he did his post-doctoral work.

Michael Parsons (Photo contributed)

From 2003 until 2007, Parsons worked with a group of scientists to study mine tailings in 14 of the province’s 64 historical gold mine districts, and found they contained elevated concentrations of arsenic and mercury, which was used to extract gold until about 1940. Both metals pose serious health risks.

In its inorganic form, arsenic is associated with cancer and many other serious diseases. The World Health Organization describes mercury – used to extract gold until about 1940 – as “toxic to human health, posing a particular threat to the development of the child in utero and early in life.”

In some tailings, Parsons and his colleagues found arsenic concentrations as high as 312,000 mg per kilogram, or 10,000 times higher than the current Nova Scotia guideline of 31 mg per kilogram for arsenic in soil.

Parsons said that typically, the tailings are found downhill from historic mine sites, and sometimes they spread into rivers and streams, and even into the ocean if the mines were located along the coast.

He said there had been relatively few biological studies, and researchers wanted to find out more about how arsenic and mercury moved through the ecosystem.

Parsons and his colleagues found some alarming things – in Seal Harbour on the Eastern Shore they found some of the highest levels of arsenic in soft shell clams that had ever been documented in published literature.

Young children frequented some of the sites, and played in areas contaminated with arsenic and mercury. In a gold district near Bridgewater, he said, they found someone using toxic mine tailings in their children’s sandbox.

Parsons told me that when they started working at the sites in 2003, they quickly realized that there were places where people were riding all-terrain vehicles and motorbikes on the mine tailings.

Dirt biking on tailings contaminated with arsenic at Montague Gold Mines. Photo: Michael Parsons

One of those was Montague Mines, just 20 minutes from Parsons’ office, where the scientists found there was a lot of exposure to airborne particulates from the tailings. Montague Mines, along with Goldenville near Sherbrooke on the Eastern Shore, came at the top of the list for arsenic concentrations in the 14 sites they studied.

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

Research on contamination and how to contain it at Montague Gold Mines. Photo: Michael Parsons

After they passed their findings on to the provincial government, Parsons said that a historic mine tailings committee – comprising representatives from five federal and five provincial government departments – was formed. Its mandate was to get an idea of how close some of the historical mine sites were to places where people were living, and to report to the Nova Scotia cabinet.

In 2006, Parsons said, they put up signs warning people of the risks of the tailings in Montague Mines as an “interim measure.”

Photos of rally on Goldenville tailings (p 45 Parsons et al 2012)

Because of the findings in Goldenville, Parsons says a letter was sent to organizers of an annual 4X4 rally, warning that it was being held on the mine wastes. This led the municipality to stop sponsoring the popular Labour Day event, and its cancellation.

The committee’s work also prompted Nova Scotia Environment to create a special page and map devoted to arsenic occurrence and risks in the province, and also a page devoted to mercury.

While the committee itself faded away, Parsons said the research continued, involving scientists from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Health Canada, and Queen’s University, and experts on tailings storage, such as Kerry Rowe, a specialist on geo-membranes that can be used to limit contamination from mining operations.

In 2012, Parsons and his team published their findings in a landmark report, the results of which they said could be used “to help minimize the environmental impacts with past, present and future gold extraction and to inform land-use decisions.”

In 2015, John Drage of the NS Department of Natural Resources published a review of the environmental impact of the historic mining in the province.

By then, Nova Scotia was just starting to show the symptoms of a 21st century bout of gold fever.

Gold rush #4 hits Nova Scotia

In the past few years gold prices have been on the rise, spawning a resurgence in gold mining around the world, and Nova Scotia’s fourth gold rush.

This makes research into historic tailings all the more important and relevant, because, as Parsons told me:

Most of the places that companies these days are looking for new gold mines is in historical districts. So the reality is that a lot of these places do have historical tailings, and they’re an important part of the overall site management plan. So in the case of, for example, Moose River, they actually had to move some [contaminated historic tailings] because they were within the footprint of their open pit.

(I have reported extensively on the Atlantic Gold / St. Barbara Moose River consolidated project for the Halifax Examiner here, here, here, here, and here.)

Parsons continued:

And so it’s an interesting situation because, of course, historically they would have just been discharged into lakes and wetlands and streams. Arguably, if you excavate those sorts of tailings very carefully and control things like erosion and sediment input, if you actually put those in a lined cell, in a tailings impoundment, arguably, that’s a better long-term solution than [where] they currently reside. But it needs to be done very carefully.

New gold mines in the shadow of old ones

On November 25, 2019 Parsons gave a presentation at the “Environment Education Conference,” hosted by the Mining Association of Nova Scotia (MANS), about the “environmental legacy of historical gold mining in the province,” with the aim of “learning from the past to improve future environmental performance.”

Although MANS organized the conference, it was funded by Nova Scotian citizens via the Department of Energy and Mines Mineral Resources Development Fund. The media were not invited.

In his presentation, Parsons covered some important findings about historic gold mine tailings, including this note of caution:

In general, tailings in wetland areas should not be disturbed. If exposed to oxidizing conditions, these tailings can produce acidic, metal-rich drainage ► Modern operators, including prospectors, should not attempt to re-process historical gold mine tailings unless they have an approved plan to mitigate environmental risks (e.g. construction of a lined tailings impoundment).

He also highlighted some key “messages and knowledge gaps:”

  • In the gold fields of Nova Scotia, “The best place to find a new mine is in the shadow of an old mine.” As such, modern miners must plan to deal with legacy mine wastes with high As [arsenic] and Hg [mercury] concentrations…

  • Reprocessing historical mine wastes may reduce their environmental impacts, but key questions remain concerning economics, milling flow sheets, and regulatory and policy barriers.

  • Knowledge gaps: ecological impacts of As and Hg bioaccumulation; long-term performance of waste rock, open pits, and tailings covers.

Parsons’ presentation also detailed the risks of human exposure to gold mine tailings at Montague Mines and Goldenville, and how these can be reduced.

Gaps in the data

Another scientist with extensive knowledge of the arsenic and mercury contamination at historic mine sites in the province, and of the gaps in our knowledge about them, is Linda Campbell of Saint Mary’s University.

In an interview on campus, Campbell told me that while good work was done from the early 2000s to 2010 by the gold mining tailings group, there are still a lot of gaps in the data on mines tailings and in the data quality. Said Campbell:

… there are several reports that say they analyzed [contamination in] fish, they analyzed invertebrates [animals with no backbones, everything from sea sponges to dragonflies]. But maybe they only collected one or two fish, or they collected this or that bug. They might not even have the proper name for it. … They didn’t focus on fish or the aquatic invertebrates.

There are very few [gold mining] districts that have been investigated to any depth, very, very few. Not enough. And even where there have been investigations, the data itself and the reports themselves might not be sufficient to support decision-making there, with the exception of the work that came out of the Nova Scotia gold mining tailings group. That was very robust work.

Linda Campbell at Montague Mines. Photo: Joan Baxter

Asked what she thinks the priorities should be for research on tailings and how to deal with them in Nova Scotia, Campbell replied:

I would say remediation is an important priority. But before you start doing the remediation, you need to understand what is there. We don’t even have maps. Many of the maps that are still being used today are from the 1970s, with a few modifications since that time. We don’t know how to make those decisions if we don’t have proper maps.

Campbell said that there should be a focus on fieldwork looking at contamination in sediment, water, invertebrates and trees. She added there is also a need for a study on animals that are hunted and trapped around contaminated sites, as no such research has ever been done, and hunting is common, even around Montague Mines.

Shotgun shells on tailings at Montague. Photo: Joan Baxter

But, Campbell told me, there is also a need for research on what can be done with all the mercury and arsenic around historic mine sites, particularly in wetlands:

So the challenge is, what do you do with that material in the wetlands, the material under water? If you were to dredge that, you change the chemistry and you will release it back into the environment. You could dredge the material, but you would need to establish a lot of expensive barriers and mechanisms to contain that. Another option would be to infill the areas.

Campbell said that Nova Scotia wetlands tend to be shallow, and contaminated sediments in them can be up to three metres deep, so any infill would need to support a natural recovery of the wetland that would not harm it, reduce the movement of the toxic compounds, and promote the accumulation of organic material on top of the contaminated sediments.

She said the infill option is the one being looked at for remediation of the Montague Mines site.

Sign warns of open shafts in the Montague mining district. Photo: Joan Baxter

For two decades, the province had a program to look at the physical hazards of abandoned mines in the province, trying to reduce the risks of people falling into those holes with fencing and signs.

But, according to Parsons and Campbell, there has not been the same concerted effort to map and assess all the risks of all the historical tailings.

Then, suddenly, something changed.

Province suddenly springs to action

Years after the warnings from researchers about the risks of the historic mine tailings, and perhaps not coincidentally just as a 21st century gold rush was taking off in the province, with all the proposed new mines to be developed around historic mine sites contaminated with toxic tailings, in September 2018, the province – specifically the crown corporation Nova Scotia Lands – issued a request for proposals for “closure concepts and costs” for Montague and Goldenville historic gold mine sites.

NS Lands budgeted $400,000 for this exercise.

The contract was awarded just a month later to the “Intrinsik team” that comprised four large consulting firms. They submitted their reports to Nova Scotia Lands on July 24, 2019.

The next day, then Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin told reporters that the government would be spending $47.9 million to clean up Montague Mines and Goldenville.

Auditor General worried about historic mine sites

Nova Scotia’s Auditor General, Michael Pickup, was not impressed.

In his financial audit in October 2019, Pickup found “ineffective monitoring and reporting of abandoned mine sites:”

When we tested the contaminated sites liability, we identified a significant control weakness relating to the Department of Lands and Forestry’s (DLF) financial reporting of abandoned mine sites. As a result of this weakness, our Office is now conducting a performance audit in this area with planned reporting in spring 2020.

The Department of Lands and Forestry has not completed sufficient site investigations on all abandoned mine sites identified with potential areas of contamination.

Pickup concluded that:

The Department cannot effectively assess the Province’s financial exposure relating to potential future remediation and monitoring costs associated with abandoned mine sites.

Without appropriate analysis, there is a risk that potential contamination is not identified or managed, resulting in unaddressed human health or ecological concerns.

Among the questions the Auditor General suggested Nova Scotians might want to ask was:

Why did the Department of Lands and Forestry not have a detailed plan in place to conduct environmental assessments of abandoned mine sites?

DLF responded that it was working with NS Lands and the Department of Energy and Mines (DEM) to “develop a process to address former mine sites,” that DEM had assigned a mining engineer to NS Lands to assist with this, and that four abandoned mine sites (two gold and two coal) had been identified as priorities.

In response to my email request for an update on what the provincial government is doing to deal with historic mine sites, DLF spokesperson Lisa Jarrett – after consulting with NS Lands and Nova Scotia Environment – replied that NS Lands is leading a DLF initiative that will lead to detailed mapping of all tailings and mine waste areas on crown land. It is also developing a “risk profile” of contamination of abandoned mine sites, to prioritize areas needing environmental site assessments.

Jarrett added that:

[The Department of] Lands & Forestry established an inter-departmental Advisory Group on Abandoned Mine Sites on Crown Lands.  This committee includes officials from the Departments of Environment, Energy and Mines, Finance and Treasury Board, Health and Wellness, and Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, and from Nova Scotia Lands, Inc. The committee is providing advice on the review of the abandoned mines on crown land.

Google Map of Montague Gold Mines


So far, there are plans and a budget to close just two historic gold mine sites, one being Montague Gold Mines in HRM, which may be a very complicated undertaking, not least because the contaminated tailings didn’t stay put at the historic gold mine site.

According to Parsons, historically the Montague Mines tailings were deposited in Mitchell’s Brook that flows into Barry’s Run, which in turn flows into Lake Charles. So the finest tailings, which Parsons described as “clay-rich material” known as “the slime” would have gone right into Lake Charles.

But, he added, Mother Nature has an amazing ability to do remediation over time, so it is likely that the historical tailings would have been buried under cleaner sediment in Barry’s Run, and would not be moving around that much. He also said that with climate change and the higher frequency of extreme storm events, if there is more water moving through the system, there is potential for erosion.

It is important not to move tailings around too much when the clean-up is done at Montague Mines, Parsons told me, and one has to be “very, very careful about any development” in the area.

But “development” is exactly what is planned in the area on both sides of Barry’s Run in Port Wallace. That is where Clayton Developments, part of the Shaw Group of companies, “one of Eastern Canada’s leading natural resource manufacturers and community developers,” has plans to put in a huge new subdivision, in the long shadow of Montague Gold Mines.

To be continued in Part 2 of this series.

[1] The 1990 self-published book Caribou gold mines 1864 – 1990 by Eleanor M. Belmore, provides a great deal of history about these early gold finds in Nova Scotia and historic gold mines.

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