SHERBROOKE – Deploying some of the strongest language yet by a public official, Central Nova Member of Parliament Sean Fraser says he has “serious reservations” about the proposed Cochrane Hill gold mining project near Sherbrooke and that when it comes to protected spaces “we have to grow a backbone.”
In a wide-ranging interview with The Journal, Fraser singled out Australian mining giant St. Barbara’s Atlantic Gold subsidiary, which hopes to construct an open pit mine along the St. Mary’s River, for proposing to build a road through a nature trust.
“The idea that you can pave through a protected area is something that I’m not comfortable with,” he said. “If we’ve established protections for nature, we have to stick by those. So, if you can’t find a way to accommodate those protections, we have to have the backbone to say, well, then, you might not be able to do that here.”
He added that while he may have “reservations” about “other elements” of the project, he will “rely on the advice of expert scientists who are applying a rigorous approach to any major project that’s being proposed.”
Fraser’s comments come at a time when the federal government is conducting an extensive environmental review of the proposed mine, which would…occupy a 600-acre plot less than a kilometre from the St. Mary’s River, jutting into a protected area of the Nova Scotia Nature Trust. Major works of the seven-year operation would include a two-kilometre-long tailings pond containing 10.9 million metric tons of heavy-metal and acid effluent, and a road over Trust-administered land.
Since announcing its intentions towards Cochrane Hill in 2018, Atlantic Gold has drawn the ire of many both inside and outside the community who don’t believe the environmental and social risks are worth the purported economic rewards.
“It’ll definitely destroy one of the most pristine areas in our province,” prominent Nova Scotia businessman and philanthropist Paul Sobey – whose family foundation donated some of the land in question – told the CBC last spring. St. Mary’s River Association President Scott Beaver told The Journal in December that while the predicted commercial returns are likely to be minor, measurably detrimental impacts “will hit tourism hardest.”
In fact, an independent economic impact analysis by Halifax consultant Jozsa Management & Economics for the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s released late last year concluded that of the 274 direct jobs the mine would create over its lifetime, St. Mary’s residents could see, at best, 55 full-time positions, each paying about $85,000 a year. On the other hand, it said, “The proposed Cochrane Hill Open Pit Mine Project is a potential threat to the current sustainability and future growth of the tourism sector in the Municipality.”
In the interview, Fraser said, “There’s many other opportunities for economic growth in St. Mary’s that I see...If we realize that by investing in measures that don’t necessarily degrade our environment, we can create opportunities for economic growth and we can sustain rural industries that are environmentally friendly. Frankly, I think the greatest opportunity for economic growth for the next generation in Canada is by investing in the transition to a low carbon economy and protecting more of our nature.”
He added, “I try not to buy into the narrative that the economy and the environment have to be opposed to one another. I am somebody who will continue to have faith in science, facts and evidence.”
For its part, Atlantic Gold insists it can install a mine and all associated infrastructure without threatening or disrupting the community or the surrounding natural environment. “Atlantic Gold recognizes that the St. Mary’s River watershed is an ecologically significant area,” the company said in a recent statement. "We have retained world-class scientists and engineers to conduct studies on valued components of the ecosystem in and around Cochrane Hill.”
Despite his reservations, Fraser said, “My door is open...if the company (Atlantic Gold) wants to have conversations...I think there is a tendency in today’s political realm to be afraid of having conversations with people who you may disagree with or who may take a different view. I think it’s important to continue to have an open door. That’s how you learn. I find that you are better served in the long term by listening to different perspectives.”
Still, he added, “When it does come to establishing protected spaces, I think we have to strengthen our resolve, grow a backbone and say we’re not going to let you develop a protected area.”