ST. MARY – Atlantic Gold, which intends to “mitigate any risks” associated with operating an open pit mine in the ecologically sensitive St. Mary’s River valley, has been arraigned on 32 counts of violating Nova Scotia’s Environment Act.
The charges filed last week in provincial court accuse the subsidiary of the Australian mining giant St Barbara Limited of “releasing substances into the environment in amount, concentration or level in excess of approval level or regulations” at its Moose River and 15 Mile Stream operations near Middle Musquodoboit, between Feb. 2018 and May 2020.
Despite this, Atlantic Gold Communications Manager Dustin O’Leary said the company is fully prepared “to demonstrate, with the verification of third-party independent experts, that all water sources can be protected before, during and after the mine life of the proposed Cochrane Hill Gold Mine operations,” near Sherbrooke.
“That process will place the highest importance on our ability to operate while mitigating any potential risks to the local environment,” he told The Journal in an email.
The Moose River case, which has been adjourned to permit the company time to prepare a plea, is generating questions in this part of Guysborough County about whether the Cochrane Hill project can be both commercially and environmentally viable.
Last month, Atlantic Gold confirmed that it has delayed the mine’s opening by four years, until 2026, stating that developing its Beaver Dam and 15 Mile Stream properties were higher priorities. But, in its recent Q2 2021report to investors, St Barbara also noted that the provincial government’s uncertainty over extending protected status to nearby Archibald Lake, a potential source of water for the mine, “defers any decision subject to outcome of EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] process.”
All of which raises red flags about the project’s likely impact on the district’s natural environment, said Deirdre Green, a board member of the Saint Mary’s River Association, which has opposed the mine since its conception four years ago.
“There is zero question in my mind that there is significant risk, regardless of how much mitigation work Atlantic Gold says they will do,” she said in an email. “The recent arraignment should be proof enough of Atlantic Gold’s inability to be trusted with respecting and complying with the Environmental Act.”
St. Mary’s Warden Grieg Wier is not so sure.
In an interview, he said, “I have personally met with them [Atlantic Gold] only once, and they were respectful. There are some infractions I guess [but] I have no reason to bad mouth them at this time. This is still in the courts, so it’s not something I’m going to make a comment on right now.”
In his email, O’Leary pointed out that the “main incidents raised by the NSE [Nova Scotia Environment] relate to instances where significant rainfall events have caused water, containing silty road materials, to run-off secondary access driveways and overwhelm the existing storm water management system. There is no connection with or impact on current mining activities, including the tailings processing and management facility.”
Furthermore, he stated, “Atlantic Gold has been proactively working with NSE to address these matters … which were self-reported by the Company. Full remediation work was conducted at the time of the incidents with an ongoing focus on mitigation.”
With respect to Cochrane Hill, he added: “Our Company looks forward to submitting its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the … project and working within the stringent environmental assessment process that will follow.”
For Cherry Hill resident Leigh MacFarlane, however, it may be too little, too late for Atlantic Gold.
“I had started out feeling neutral about the prospect of a gold mine here, but there have been a couple of things,” she said. “How much water will be used there and what impacts will that have on the area; and would the tailings pond be susceptible to things like an extraordinary rain event?”
In light of the company’s current legal woes, she added, “I don’t have confidence in its ability to protect the environment from the toxins it is using in the processing of gold … and seeing this [Moose River] situation just affirms that.”
According to financial reports from St Barbara, Atlantic Gold’s Moose River mine posted a profit from operations of about $84 million on revenue of $233 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020. That represented just less than one-third of the parent group’s $253 million in operating earnings on $828 million in revenue. Atlantic Gold has said the Cochrane Hill mine could employ hundreds of local people in good-paying jobs during the facility’s construction and expected six-year lifespan.
“As reported in the [St Barbara’s] 2020 annual report, Atlantic Gold’s environmental performance was excellent with the main reported issue being run-off of soil from mine roads,” O’Leary said. “This has been largely addressed with a number of drainage redesign initiatives. The tailings management facility and other environmental risks have been well managed with a number of procedures refreshed and improved in 2020.”
Still, the SMRA’s Green said: “We understand that people must work, but a smash-and-grab mining operation that could very likely have devastating effects to our area is not the right choice for us today, tomorrow or for future generations.”
Atlantic Gold is expected to be back in court on March 15.