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Province still investigating seepage at Atlantic Gold mine

Review panel says discharge ‘normal’

  • October 20 2021
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    

HALIFAX – Despite an all-clear from a review panel of mining experts, the provincial government’s investigation into an odd-looking liquid found in the collection ditch around Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy mine at Moose River in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) remains open.

“Based on lab results from the sampling conducted by the department [Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change (NSECC)], there is no evidence of a leak into the environment,” said spokesperson Tracy Barron in an emailed statement to The Journal last week.

“The investigation will remain open, however, until staff assess additional information requested from the company about the orange-coloured seepage and staining that was reported in the containment pond,” she added.

The liquid was first noticed in late August after a private pilot, who had flown over the site, distributed pictures that convinced some observers on social media that the mine’s safeguards were failing.

“There was evidence of a leak and [of] a jerry-rigged operation pumping escaped water back into the pond,” the No Open Pit Excavation (NOPE) campaign – which opposes Atlantic Gold’s plans to build a mine at Cochrane Hill near Sherbrooke – posted to its Facebook page on Aug. 29. “One only needs to look downstream of the tailing ponds to see the pristine natural environment that could be destroyed.”

But, according to Atlantic Gold spokesperson Dustin O’Leary, the Independent Tailings Review Board (ITRB) has concluded that the liquid in question is neither harmful nor indicative of structural problems with the facility. In an email to The Journal, he quoted directly from a report he said the ITRB sent to the company earlier this month:

The ITRB considers that the seepage noted in the East Seepage Collection ditch is a normal condition and does not represent any threat to dam safety. This confirms that the water in the ditch and pond reflects a combination of pond water, groundwater and natural run-off, as expected.”

O’Leary stated that the ITRB is “a group of independent experts… assigned to review the work of [Atlantic Gold’s Australian corporate owner] St Barbara Limited staff and the Engineer of Record [and to] provide guidance and recommendations to ensure the operational safety and stability of the Tailings Management Facility [at Touquoy].”

St Barbara’s 2020 Sustainability Report explains that “The Touquoy Tailings Management Facility was designed by a leading specialist engineering firm to comply with Minerals Association Canada and regulatory requirements,” and notes that the facility “is inspected annually by an engineer of record as well as having periodic more detailed reviews, supervised by an ITRB that includes some of the leading experts in Canada.”

According to O’Leary, the ITRB attached to Atlantic Gold includes: Karlis Jansons, a geotechnical engineering consultant; Alan Martin, an environmental scientist with a background in geochemistry; and Peter Lighthall, a geotechnical consultant. He added:

Our team continues to work with and provide information to Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change (NSECC) and will continue to meet any and all requirements they have for information going forward.”

Meanwhile, slower-than-expected federal and provincial permitting has delayed progress on Atlantic Gold’s Fifteen Mile Stream and Beaver Dam development projects – north and northwest of Sheet Harbour – and its proposed open pit mine at Cochrane Hill, forcing St Barbara to declare a $248-million non-cash impairment (write down) on global operations in FY21.

Atlantic Gold also faces 32 counts of violating Nova Scotia’s Environment Act for “releasing substances in amount, concentration or level in excess of approval level or regulations” at Moose River and Fifteen Mile Stream, between Feb. 2018 and May 2020.

It is not clear when NSECC – which was expected to close its investigation of the seepage at Touquoy last month – will be ready with a final report.