ST. MARY’S – The Nova Scotia government’s decision to allow a major change, without a full environmental assessment, at the province’s only working gold mine in Moose River is ominous news for places like St. Mary’s facing open pit developments, warn community advocates in Sherbrooke and Halifax.
“All Nova Scotians should worry,” Scott Beaver, president of the St. Mary’s River Association and an organizer of N.O.P.E. [No Open Pit Excavation at Cochrane Hill], told The Journal in email last week. “The way this approval has been fast tracked, divorced from the careful consideration of a rigorous environmental assessment, and the cozy relationship with foreign corporations influencing government policy and decisions paints a grim picture for the evaluation of all projects proposed for [the province].”
Beaver was commenting on Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change’s [NSECC] Aug. 10 approval of Australian company St Barbara’s request, filed two months ago, to raise the height of the wall containing mine waste at its Touquoy operation.
In its petition, the gold miner had said that it may be forced to shut down the near-capacity facility immediately — throwing up to 350 people along the Eastern Shore out of work — if the province refused to permit the stop-gap measure this month. A larger request to retrofit the facility for long-term use as a waste storage site for St Barbara’s new mines under development or being planned at Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream and Cochrane Hill (near Sherbrooke) is making its way through the public approval process.
Explaining last week’s decision, government spokesperson Tracy Barron said in an email, “After a thorough review, [NSECC] is satisfied that the proposed activities are in line with the applicable legislation, regulations, policies, and standards. Raising the height of the tailings facility provides the company with required capacity.”
But in a communiqué to investors last week, the Australian company’s Managing Director and CEO Craig Jetson insisted that decision was a “direct result” of his “recent interactions with key stakeholders in Nova Scotia, which has enabled improved co-ordination and communication with the Nova Scotia government and the Canadian federal government.”
Moreover, he said, “I am keen to develop the new collaborative approach with the government, which helped with the delivery of today’s permit. I will be returning to Nova Scotia shortly to continue to build on the positive momentum and support [our Atlantic Operations] team as we also progress permitting for the in-pit tailings deposition and Beaver Dam.”
That level of confidence is disquieting, said Beaver. “It says to me that the process has completely broken down and has been co-opted by corporate interests … that this government wants a process that will make Nova Scotia a banana republic and is pursuing 19th century economics in a 21st century world.”
Karen McKendry, wilderness outreach co-ordinator of the Ecology Action Centre, based in Halifax, is also concerned. “If the new collaborative approach is working out well for them [St Barbara], it’s not working out well for Nova Scotians,” she said.
“The recent environmental assessment process [for Signal Gold’s gold mine] at Goldboro in Guysborough County had a pretty short public and government comment period of 30 days [before it was approved in early August]. But, at Touquoy, the tailings dam [lift] didn’t go through a public process. This process is very like a black box. Who makes the decision? What expertise in oversight do they have? I just hope that somebody in government had their eyes on this and did a really thorough examination.”
In her email, Barron said, “The proposed height increase has been designed by the company’s engineer, who is professionally responsible for ensuring the dam design is sustainable and meets the requirements of the Canadian Dam Safety Guidelines. The company has also submitted a Dam Breach and Inundation Study as part of its application. This height increase does not increase the existing footprint of the mine.”
In February, a provincial court ordered St. Barbara to pay $250,000 in fines for violating provisions of provincial and federal environment acts at the Touquoy mine.
In May, Nova Scotia Environment Minister Tim Halman sent the company back to the drawing board for the second time in less than a year to flesh out its long-term plans for transforming the operation, which is nearing the end of its productive lifespan, into a tailings management facility (TMF) for waste from the company’s future operations in the province.
“The information provided [by St Barbara] is insufficient to allow me to make a decision,” Halman wrote in his letter to the company at the time.
In a statement issued June 22, St Barbara stipulated that the “clarification” sought by the province “late in the process… on aspects” of the conversion application meant that it wouldn’t have time to complete the work before it ran out of room for its existing tailings from Touquoy. “The longer-term strategy [for Beaver Dam and Fifteen Mile Stream] has now become [a] critical path for business continuity as the Touquoy mine approaches end of life,” it said.
In his release last week, Jetson declared that the go-ahead to “lift” the waste wall should now “provide sufficient time to work with the provincial government to resolve NSECC’s outstanding queries on the Environmental Assessment for in-pit tailings deposition.”
What’s more, he added, “There are sufficient stockpiles in place at Touquoy to ensure continued gold production from the Atlantic Operations until December 2024. The company is likely to achieve final permitting for Beaver Dam prior to that time.”
According to St Barbara’s latest fourth-quarter report, gold production at Touquoy increased by 64 per cent over the year-earlier period. For the year ending June 30, 2021, the Atlantic operations posted an operating profit of $26 million on revenue of $144 million.
Said Beaver: “[ECC] minister [Tim Halman] seems to have bought the proponent’s hype of the financial benefits without any due diligence or analysis. [He] seems to be blind tone deaf to the people of Nova Scotia who care deeply about wilderness, water and the natural world.”
Recent surveys indicate that a majority of respondents in St. Mary’s care deeply and predominantly about the quality of the natural environment.
(This story was updated Aug. 17, at 12:00 p.m. to correct an error, re: public survey findings.)