Major river groups join forces to fight Cochrane Hill mine

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
February 19 2020

SHERBROOKE – With rare footage of wild Atlantic salmon spawning just metres from the site of a planned gold mine on the upper St. Mary’s River, three conservation groups in Nova Scotia have joined forces for the first time to send a clear message to industry and government, alike: The fish are here to stay, and so are they.

“We’ve come together to stop this mine and protect Atlantic salmon by any means at our disposal,” Kris Hunter, the Atlantic Salmon Federation’s director of programs for Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, told The Journal in an interview. “We’re not going anywhere.”

At a press conference in downtown Halifax last week, representatives of the St. Mary’s River Association (SMRA), the Nova Scotia Salmon Association (NSSA) and the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) showed a video of two adult salmon preparing to spawn in McKeen Brook – a tributary of the St. Mary’s near Cochrane Hill, where Australian mineral conglomerate St. Barbara’s Atlantic Gold subsidiary proposes to mine.

The project, the groups say, would threaten the area’s waterways and further imperil the already endangered Atlantic salmon. The video, shot by photographers Tom Cheney and Nick Hawkins over 10 days last November, is one of the only live-action captures of its kind in the province and demonstrates that efforts to protect natural habitats have been successful over the years, despite encroaching industrialization.

“The St. Mary’s River is the last, best hope for salmon recovery in, arguably, all of the Maritimes,” said Scott Beaver, President of the St. Mary’s River Association. “We have invested more than a million dollars since 2014 to improve habitat for wildlife and recently received a $1.2 million federal grant to continue the work. We are the river system in Nova Scotia that for years has been sending our large fish to repopulate other rivers. This development could undermine everything we’ve done.”

Mike Crosby, President of the Nova Scotia Salmon Assoc. added, “On the one hand, both federal and provincial governments have poured millions of dollars into restoring this and other rivers, and on the other hand they’re saying (it may be okay) to put a gold mine beside the St. Mary’s. There are many other places and ways you can go and mine for gold. Cochrane Hill would have such a short life and leave behind a toxic legacy to be managed forever.”

Kris Hunter agrees that industrial use of these fragile habitats effectively undermines years of environmental policy. “Along with the St. Mary’s, the West River (near Sheet Harbour, where St. Barbara hopes to develop another gold mine) also has a sizeable population of endangered wild salmon thanks in large part to a 15-year acid rain mitigation program led by the Nova Scotia Salmon Assoc. and the province of Nova Scotia,” he said. “If we lose salmon, it tells us that the entire ecosystem is not doing well. Given all the work that has gone into these rivers, it’s hard to conceive more inappropriate sites for gold mines.”

Although each organization, individually, has objected to Atlantic Gold’s activities in the past, this is the first time they’ve joined forces to broadcast a common message so forcefully. “It sends shivers down my spine when I see it all come together like this,” Beaver said.

Crosby added, “When you run into a cause that’s as serious as this is, we have to get the message across collectively to have any impact on political will.”

The groups say Atlantic Gold’s seven-year mining project at Cochrane Hill (now under provincial and federal environmental review) involves a 600-acre plot of less than a kilometre from the St. Mary’s River, and juts into a protected area the Nova Scotia Nature Trust administers. Major works, they say, would include an extraction pit 170 metres deep and a tailings impoundment to hold back 10.9 million metric tons of mine waste containing heavy metals and acid.

For its part, Atlantic Gold says it’s confident in the environmental safety of its proposed Cochrane Hill project, and points to its existing gold operations at Moose River, near Musquodoboit, for proof of its sound track record in Nova Scotia. “There, we’re just upstream from the protected area, Ship Harbour-Long Lake,” said Jim Millard, Atlantic Gold’s Manager of Environmental and Community Relations. “We’ve been operating there for two years now with essentially no detectable effects to that lake right at this stage. The water that comes out of our operation is very, very clean.”

What’s more, he said, many of the conservation groups’ criticisms reflect reasonable concerns, if not always accurate information. “From our perspective, this is a normal and important part of the process. We think that the decisions that are going to be made will either be approved or not, based on what we consider to be a fair, robust, science-based process that’s currently underway. They (the groups) have an opportunity as an intervenor in this process to provide science-based evidence to the federal impact assessment agency, and we’ll take that under consideration too. But they do need to provide that evidence.”

On that, perhaps, Atlantic Gold and the ASF, SMRA and NSSA may agree. As environmental regulators move closer to making a decision, “provide that evidence” will likely remain the battle cry on the front lines of the fight for the St. Mary’s.