The extractive industries have their sights set on Nova Scotia as a literal goldmine, and decades of conservation efforts – as well the future of a beloved river – hang in the balance.
Three years after Atlantic Gold opened a gold mine north-east of Halifax, the mining company intends to open three more across Nova Scotia. One of the mines has been proposed alongside the St Mary’s River, Nova Scotia’s longest single waterway – and in the opinions of many, its wildest, supporting both endangered species and ecosystems. This, the so-called Cochrane Hill Gold Mine, has become the focal point of mounting public opposition to gold mining in Nova Scotia.
“To put a mine [on the St Mary’s] is a terrible idea,” said Charlotte Connolly, campaign coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre, an environmental advocacy group based in Nova Scotia.
All three proposed mines are under joint federal and provincial environmental review. But according to Connolly, the provincial government has already given Atlantic Gold a warm welcome, publicly touting the economic benefits of gold mining to Nova Scotians and offering a very low royalty rate – a fee charged to any company profiting from a public resource.
Very few new mines in Canada fail to receive federal approval according to Jamie Kneen, who handles communications for MiningWatch Canada, a coalition that promotes sustainable mining practices. Over time, Kneen says, as rare metal deposits became scarce, mines have become bigger in order to harvest smaller fragments of gold. Some – like Cochrane Hill – are increasingly situated in vulnerable ecosystems, such as on the banks of major rivers.
“Consider the St Mary’s River,” he said. “Do you really want to mess with that? Even if you accept all [of Atlantic Gold’s] promises – that there’s a low probability of a serious problem – the consequences [of toxic waste] are still huge.”
The “wildness” of the St Mary’s River is in part due to its unusual concentration of old growth and floodplain forests, which have grown relatively undisturbed for centuries. These forests are storehouses of provincial biodiversity, such as Wood turtles and rare lichen, and there are precious few left in Nova Scotia.
The St Mary’s has been the subject of intense conservation efforts for decades. The St Mary’s River Association was established in 1979 to protect and restore the river’s once-famous salmon fishery – visited by such celebrities as Babe Ruth and Michael J Fox – and has spent decades building fish ladders and monitoring the health of the ecosystem and resident fish. Since 2014, it has dedicated $1.1m to rebuilding riverbanks and spawning habitat pulverized by log drives, and just last year received another $1.2m to shield the river from acid rain.
In recent years, members of the association have noticed the number of salmon nests growing dramatically in the stretches of river they’ve restored. Slowly but surely, it seems salmon are returning to the St Mary’s.
“This is starting to become a major natural corridor,” said Bonnie Sutherland, executive director of the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, which has privately protected over 600 hectares of old growth and floodplain forest along the river. “It’s pretty ironic that this proposed mine is coming at the height of conservation achievement on this river.”
In addition to these private efforts, the provincial government has committed to protecting thousands of hectares along the river, turning them into forthcoming provincial parks, wilderness areas and nature reserves.
The Cochrane Hill mine, as proposed, would draw water for gold processing from one such forthcoming wilderness area. But once the provincial government officially establishes a wilderness area, it cannot be used by the mine in any way, said Chris Miller of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
Conservationists have flagged multiple other issues with Atlantic Gold’s planned construction: it would drain its treated effluent – which may contain mercury and arsenic, according to Michael Parsons of Natural Resources Canada – through McKeens Brook, which the St Mary’s River Association believes is among the most productive salmon-spawning habitats on the entire river.
The mine’s construction would also necessitate rerouting a nearby highway through land protected by the Nova Scotia Nature Trust – likely destroying old growth forests that the trust is mandated to protect. In order for the highway to be rerouted, according to members of the trust, the province would have to seize the land for public use through a controversial mechanism called expropriation.
“Expropriation would be wrong on so many levels,” said Sutherland.
Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment declined to comment directly on the potential for expropriation until the proposed mine’s environmental review has been completed. The department said public comment would be invited at that time.
“Our company is still completing studies to optimize the plan for the proposed Cochrane Hill Gold Mine,” said St Barbara, parent company of Atlantic Gold, in a statement to the Guardian.
“St Barbara greatly respects the work of local groups to protect and grow spawning habitat of Atlantic salmon and other aquatic and terrestrial life around the St Mary’s River. In line with our commitment to respecting the environment, we have invested a significant amount of time and funding to study all possible impacts our operations could have on the local environment, including water tables and aquatic habitat. We have also assessed how best we can effectively mitigate any possible impacts.”
Kneen, from MiningWatch Canada, said that even when mines have been exhausted, they will have to be monitored forever in order to avoid contamination of water and soil. When contamination does occur, Kneen says Canada has a very poor record of holding companies to account, and there are few legal remedies for Canadian citizens or communities to do so themselves.
“Like everyone else, we’re trying to navigate our way through the pandemic, while trying to keep the gold mine fight front and centre,” said Scott Beaver, president of the St Mary’s River Association.
“If they push a mine through to the St Mary’s, there’s no place in Nova Scotia, in my mind, that can be protected from mining. The St Mary’s is a sacred spot.”