Cleaning up the historic tailings from Montague Gold Mines – does Port Wallace development hang in the balance?
This is the third and final article in a series first 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 Gold Mines in Halifax Regional Municipality – is affecting plans for a major subdivision in Port Wallace. The series ends with some reflection on how it might all have been avoided had settlers heeded the wisdom of the Mi’kmaq. Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.
The Halifax Regional Municipality wasted little time acting on the environmental site assessment report that Council had commissioned for municipal properties at Barry’s Run and Mitchell’s Brook in Port Wallace, an area of wetlands and forest between Waverley Road and the Forest Hills Extension in Dartmouth, for which a large new subdivision was planned.
Dillon Consultants submitted the report in mid-August 2019, and two weeks later HRM issued an advisory that people should stay out of the water in Barry’s Run and avoid consuming fish from the stream, noting, “There is a history of gold mining in the Montague Mines area, and Barry’s Run is now confirmed to be contaminated from mine tailings (i.e. waste from mine processing).”
The Halifax Regional Municipality – or HRM – also erected warning signs around the stream.
On its website, HRM outlined the potential health risks posed by Barry’s Run:
The primary concern with arsenic contaminated sediment (mud) is from ingestion, such as drinking water with suspended/dissolved arsenic, and through prolonged contact with the skin. In some cases, fish can also accumulate arsenic and mercury in their flesh, which may be a concern for local anglers who regularly catch and eat fish from the area. As we do not yet have information on concentrations in fish or risks from touching sediments (mud), we are asking people not to swim, wade, or consume fish from the area until the potential health risks are more thoroughly assessed and managed.
One of the frequently asked questions on the site was:
How is the Port Wallace Secondary Planning process impacted, which is proposing a new 9,000 person community on surrounding lands?
The HRM answer:
A report to Regional Council is being prepared to outline the results of the environmental assessment and discuss the implications to the Port Wallace Secondary Planning process. The report is targeted for September 2019 and more information about the impact to the secondary planning process will be available after the report is published and Regional Council has an opportunity to consider the information and provide direction.
HRM CAO Jacques Dubé submitted the report, “Port Wallace Secondary Planning Process and Environmental Investigation Near Barry’s Run” to Mayor Mike Savage and Council in October 2019. It sounded a clear warning bell about proceeding with the secondary planning process for the new subdivision that Clayton Developments had planned for Port Wallace.
The report concluded that such planning processes were “uncertain by design to ensure that development proposals consider and respond to a wide variety of environmental, cultural and financial information.”
This was a remarkable statement.
HRM had been commissioning studies and working with Clayton Developments for the Port Wallace development for years. Council had approved the Port Wallace secondary planning process back in March 2014.
So if the “secondary planning process” couldn’t ensure the development proposal considered important environmental information, then what exactly was it and what did the process entail? In an email, HRM spokesperson Brynn Budden told me:
Secondary Planning is a term used to describe the municipality’s neighbourhood master planning process. This planning process involves extensive study of the land and infrastructure needs, community engagement and the preparation of detailed planning documents to guide the location of roads, parks, trails and buildings among various other neighborhood features. Before any development can take place, Council is required to review, further consult the community, and approve new planning documents for the area. The Shubie Park utility corridor is related to the Port Wallace secondary planning process as a new sewer connection through this area is needed to service the proposed new community.
From that, it sounded as if the planning process for the Port Wallace project should have been comprehensive, but now a staff report was saying that it was not designed to deal with the environmental risks posed by Montague Gold Mines.
Montague Gold Mines casts a long shadow
The risks of contamination in the area should not have come as a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention to the growing concern about historic gold mine tailings, particularly those containing elevated levels of arsenic and mercury at Montague Gold Mines in Dartmouth. As reported in the first article in this series, Michael Parsons of the Geological Survey of Canada and a team of scientists had documented the contamination at the site back in 2006, and warning signs about potential health risks had been erected the same year.
In July 2018, the province had announced that it would be trying to clean up or close Montague Mines at an estimated cost of nearly $30 million, and the closure would be done through the Crown agency, Nova Scotia Lands. The announcement followed the release of the “concept report” commissioned by the province for closing Montague Gold Mines and dealing with the tailings, which showed that the problem of contamination did not stop at the mine site itself.
The Dillon report documented contamination from Montague Gold Mines tailings downstream in Mitchell’s Brook and Barry’s Run.
Work done by scientists led by Ian Spooner from Acadia University, and appended to the Dillon report showed that:
… while there may have been a historic period where Barry’s Run was recovering, there are now near surface sediments with arsenic concentrations similar to old tailing deposits. This provides evidence that the fen [a kind of wetland] is still acting as a sink for arsenic impacted tailings … and these materials continue to be mobilized into Barry’s Run.
The report warned that the upper sediment layers in Barry’s Run were very fine and could be easily disturbed by any adjacent development:
The proposed development on the lands adjacent to the Site has the potential to increase stormwater flow volumes to the Site and increase mobilization of tailings material through the Site. The hydrology of the Site was not assessed as part of this study; however, the stability of the bog/fen complex is likely susceptible to changing hydrology on adjacent lands. In regards to future development of adjacent lands, the requirement for buffer zones to maintain stability of the bog/fen complex should also be considered. Any increase in stormwater flows from the adjacent development to the subject site should be prohibited unless it can be demonstrated to not disrupt the bog/fen complex integrity or mobilize more tailings into the system.
This did not bode well for the Clayton development plan. Before it could advance, advised the Dillon report, HRM needed to:
… understand the existing human health and ecological risk, and also identify potential development controls or restrictions to manage future human health and ecological risk.
The report continued:
Based on Dillon’s understanding of the Site [the municipal lands around Barry’s Run and Mitchell’s Brook], including the Site’s current uses and proposed future residential development on lands adjacent to the Site, the following exposure scenarios and receptor pathways are likely applicable to this site:
Children playing in the bog/fen complex for recreational purposes;
Children playing in shallow portions of Mitchell’s Brook for recreational purposes;
Fishing activities and fish consumption in Mitchell’s Brook and Barry’s Run; and
Impacts to ecological receptors [a Google search provides a definition of ecological receptors as any living organisms other than humans, as well as the habitat in which the organisms live, and also natural resources that could be adversely affected by environmental contaminations].
So, not really something you’d want in your neighbourhood.
Dillon had this advice for HRM and the province:
A risk assessment is recommended to obtain data concerning potential risks to human health and ecological receptors. Pending the results of a risk assessment, a risk management plan that incorporates appropriate engineering and administrative controls is also recommended.
As a result, the October staff report informed Mayor Mike Savage and council that the findings from Barry’s Run raised “serious questions about the draft policies and plans prepared to date” for the Port Wallace subdivision. Specifically:
… the Environmental Site Assessment completed for the Municipally-owned Barry’s Run lands together with new information about the NS Lands Montague Mine closure process raises new public health and environmental risks that may impact the overall design and feasibility of the proposed development. More study is needed through the NS Lands mine closure process to better understand the risks and recommended management strategies. [Italics are mine.]
The Conrad Quarry lands, it noted, are outside of the Barry’s Run area and could be developed without impacting the mine closure process.
However, the staff report concluded that:
Until a risk assessment and management plan is completed by NS Lands, staff advise that it is not possible to advance planning policy work and ensure that the proposed development [by Port Wallace Holdings] will not negatively impact human or environmental health.
Port Wallace stalled
At the Regional Council meeting in November 2019, Council instructed the CAO to “monitor progress with the province on the determination of the risk assessment and management plan” and report back to Council within six months. This was an amendment to an original and tougher motion that would have had staff report back to Council only after NS Lands had completed the risk assessment and management plan for Montague Mines, which was brought forward by Deputy Mayor Tony Mancini, whose constituency includes Port Wallace.
On his website, Dartmouth Centre Councillor Sam Austin reported the situation to his constituents this way:
While work on Port Wallace is generally stalled, some planning will still continue, notably, for a utility corridor through Shubie Park (expect to hear more about that in the future), and on redevelopment of the Conrad Quarry Lands off of exit 14. Conrod’s [sic] property is being separated from the rest of Port Wallace because it doesn’t drain into Barry’s Run, so staff were comfortable recommending that Council allow planning for future redevelopment of the quarry to continue. Council accepted the staff recommendations.
Hopefully in a year or two, the future of this major Dartmouth project will be clearer.
Clean-up will take five or ten years
The October 2019 staff report also briefed Mayor Savage and Council about the provincial plans to close Montague Mines:
This closure will include engineered structures and a site management plan. NS Lands is first concentrating on the heavily contaminated tailings on crown land, then moving out to lesser contaminated areas on crown land and finally to areas that have been contaminated that are not on crown land. This will be a 5 to 10-year process with the Municipally-owned Barry’s Run lands being considered near the end of the closure process.
The report describes the whole area as a “large and complex wetland,” and says it is “unlikely that NS Lands will recommend excavation of contaminated material from Barry’s Run as part of its closure plan.”
And there are still more complications.
Dillon reported that it had notified Nova Scotia Environment (NSE) of the contamination at Barry’s Run and Mitchell’s Brook because the contaminated area is a “third party impacted property” belonging to the municipality, which is not responsible for its clean up.
In other words, it’s quite a tangled mess, with two levels of government and three provincial departments involved – NS Lands (part of the portfolio of Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal), NSE, and the Department of Lands and Forestry (DLF) that owns the land at Montague Mines.
Clear as the mud in Barry’s Run
Seeking some clarity, I set out to find out who is doing what, who is working with whom, when the clean-up might begin at Montague Mines, and the status of the risk assessment and the risk management plan, which HRM is waiting for before going further with the planning process for the subdivision proposed by Clayton.
At times, it felt as if I were groping about in a murky stream for nuggets of fact.
I began with NS Lands. On its website, it states that “further sampling and assessment” at Montague Mines would be taking place in the fall of 2019, and the “full closure plan is expected by winter 2020 with work to begin on the sites by fall 2020.”
Given that we are already deep into the winter of 2020 and there are no updates about any of that work on the NS Lands website, I sent an email to spokesperson Chad Lucas asking for a progress report.
He replied that the field sampling in Montague only began in December, and would continue until early spring 2020.
“The hope is that the clean-up operation will begin in the 2020-2021 fiscal year,” Lucas wrote. “We’ll have a clearer time frame once we have the data from the current phase of sampling.”
As for the risk assessment and risk management plan that HRM was waiting for, Lucas told me, “the province has had preliminary discussions with HRM and is developing a plan for the next steps.”
Pressed for more information, Lucas provided an answer, but one that was bereft of the details and facts I had been looking for about what was really happening, and when there would be some concrete results or progress:
Municipal staff are continuing to communicate with NS Lands Inc. about their risk assessment and management plan, including receiving updates from NS Lands on their environmental sampling work and analysis. Staff expect to receive copies of relevant studies soon and understand that NS Lands is planning to engage stakeholders and the surrounding community in the coming months. Given that NS Lands is further studying environmental risks on the Barry’s Run lands, the municipality understands that the province has recognized Barry’s Run as a third party-impacted site under provincial environmental legislation.
I asked Lucas whether NS Lands would be working on any private lands in its clean-up of Montague Mines, and if those might include the municipal properties that include Barry’s Run or any owned by Port Wallace Holdings. He answered:
… those considerations are part of the ongoing discussions and planning, and the data from the current phase of sampling will help inform those discussions. It would be premature to speculate on specific details at this time.
See what I mean? Clear as the sediment in the bottom of Barry’s Run.
But I don’t blame the messenger; I suspect that the situation really is very confusing and that there is likely a good deal of pressure for it to be resolved, given that the future of Clayton Developments’ proposed Port Wallace subdivision hangs in the balance.
I don’t envy the civil servants trying to sort out a problem that can be traced back to gold mining at Montague Mines that happened many, many years earlier, before any of them were even born.
When will it all be cleaned up?
The October 2019 HRM staff report said the contaminated, municipally-owned properties at Barry’s Run had “triggered Nova Scotia Environment contaminated sites protocols,” which gave the owners of the source of the contamination at Montague Mines – namely DLF –18 months to “close” the file, although extensions were possible. Thus, said the report:
The timelines for the NSE protocols and the NS Lands closure plans do not currently align. Further discussions with NS Lands is [sic] needed to better understand their specific next steps and timelines.
Confused, I turned to Nova Scotia Environment to find out the closure or clean-up of Barry’s Run might be done, and what that closure would entail.
The reply came from DLF spokesperson, Lisa Jarrett, with input also from NS Lands and Nova Scotia Environment:
Timelines for the remediation work must align with Nova Scotia Environments contaminated sites regulations, which includes timelines. Typically, the land-owner would complete the closure.
The Department of Lands and Forestry has submitted its notification of contamination on the Historic Montague Mines site to the Department of Environment, in accordance with the Contaminated Sites Regulations, and has initiated its closure plans for the Montague Mines site. The Department’s closure plan includes prioritization, first concentrating on the most highly contaminated tailings on Crown land and then addressing lesser contaminated areas on Crown land.
I could be wrong, but I took that to mean that the plan is to deal with the tailings at Montague Gold Mines first – although the tender has yet to go out for the actual work – and that the contamination at Barry’s Run would be dealt with later.
Clayton Developments undeterred
So where does that leave Clayton Developments and its plans? Has it put its plans for a large new subdivision in Port Wallace on hold, pending the NS Lands risk assessment and management plan? Is it working with NS Lands on these? And is it prepared to wait five or ten years until Montague Mines has been closed before going ahead with the Port Wallace subdivision? Or is it continuing undeterred?
I emailed these questions to Richard Butts, who left his position as HRM CAO at the end of 2015 and a month later become president of both Clayton Developments and of Port Wallace Holdings, which owns the land slated for development. This is the reply he sent:
Port Wallace is in the Secondary Planning phase which involves assessing and analyzing all of the factors associated with new planned community developments including new servicing needs (water, sewer, roads, parks, etc.), environmental considerations, amount and type of new construction and integration with neighbours.
We continue to work with HRM and NS Lands on the planning processes for the Port Wallace Development.
Barry’s Run is owned by HRM. [This is something I had stated in the preamble to one of the questions I sent him, but there you are.]
Butts also said:
We are familiar with all of the technical assessments to date and look forward to progress on the Montague Mines clean-up. The circumstances around Barry’s Run are not uncommon in Nova Scotia and the challenges to developing the Port Wallace area are not unique or complicated.
Not complicated? Really?
The closure of Montague Mines hasn’t even begun yet, it could take five to ten years (or more, given how these things usually go), and Barry’s Run would be looked at towards the end of that closure process. Several government departments and two levels of government are involved in the process, which seems not to have got past the discussion-of-plans stage.
Does Butts know something that I was unable to find out, despite hounding to despair all those patient media relations people in two levels of government, three provincial departments and one Crown agency?
For now, it seems we just have to wait for NS Lands risk assessment and risk management plan to see how those will affect Clayton Developments’ plans for Port Wallace.
Lessons from the historic gold mines
In May 2018, I wrote this in the Halifax Examiner:
Gold is a strange substance. It is a precious metal that has long been coveted for its beauty. But it has no intrinsic value like, say, water, which we need to live, or the surface vegetation and soil in which we grow our food, which miners call “overburden.”
Since human beings began mining gold several millennia ago, it is estimated that only about 190,000 tonnes have been produced. The volume of all that mined gold is 20,261 cubic metres, or roughly half the volume of concrete used to build Toronto’s CN tower.
Nearly every ounce of this gold is still around. About half is in jewellery, 20 per cent in gold bullion investments, 17 per cent in gold reserves, and just 14 per cent is used in technology (electronics and dentistry). So it’s obvious that there is no need to produce any more gold for our technological needs. There is plenty of it sitting around unused we don’t need to go digging for the estimated 54,000 tonnes that still exist underground.
Gold recycles beautifully, so all that gold that is sitting around doing nothing useful in bank vaults and jewellery boxes could easily be repurposed.
The argument for gold mining is that we need the metal for its genuine usefulness in technology and medicine, as the Mining Association of Nova Scotia does regularly, doesn’t stand up. According to the World Gold Council, the amount of gold not used for investment, reserves and jewellery represents just 14% of the global supply, which the Council says is 190,000 tonnes. Based on these figures, then all the gold we actually need for use in technology and medicine is 26,600 tonnes.
It is estimated that total annual gold production on earth from 1500 to 1600, was seven tonnes, or 70,000 tonnes for the whole century. More than twice as much as we need for all our technological and medical needs, even those of today.
So it could be argued that all the subsequent gold mining and gold rushes – including those in Nova Scotia in the 1800s and 1900s – have been driven not by any real human need or because it is required for use in technology or medicine, but by capitalism, and in many cases, colonialism. We could have left all that gold in the ground.
Of course those who did the historic gold mining in Nova Scotia had no idea what kind of toxic legacy they were leaving for future generations.
Modern gold miners may not use mercury, but they still leave massive toxic tailings behind, with all the huge risks those pose for the future.
And by now we should know better than to take environmental risks that imperil future generations.
Yes, gold is beautiful, but only if you are blind to the violence that its extraction inflicts on the earth – and to the incalculable suffering that the quest for gold has inflicted on human beings over millennia.
I asked Mi’kmaw grassroots grandmother Dorene Bernard for her thoughts on gold mining – past and present – in Nova Scotia. This is part of her emailed reply:
…we need to change the way we see, feel, relate to our Mother Earth and water, not as resources, but as the sources of all life.
I know water is sacred, water is life and we need to protect clean water and help to heal water polluted by industrial mining and waste. You can’t drink gold, no living being will survive without clean water. This is what our cultural and L’nu role is, it is in our ancestral memory. We all have that, we need to connect with it. We must protect for our grandchildren and next seven generations all life that sustains us, for them … to survive here in Mi’kma’ki and live a good life.