New Nova Scotia gold rush: Miners seek riches in flecks of precious metal
'It's by far the best visible section of gold we've ever intersected,' says geologist
Amid the dull claystone of a tube-shaped sample of rock, the gleaming, pulse-quickening swirl of gold is unmistakable.
"It's quite a special specimen of gold — it's by far the best visible section of gold we've ever intersected," said Tim Bourque, a geologist with Atlantic Gold Corp., cradling the metre-long sample in his arms.
The rock was gathered last fall at the firm's Fifteen Mile Lake property, one of four deposits it owns in Nova Scotia's old gold districts. The company hopes to eventually employ 350 people over at these sites.
The discovery of the precious metal in such unremarkable hunks of stone is helping to revive a dormant industry — and Bourque hopes it will keep the company's Moose River Consolidated Project flourishing after its initial Touquoy mine starts up here in September.
The company said Touquoy will stamp out 87,000 ounces of gold in its first year — each ounce currently worth over US$1,200 each — an indication of the potential riches that have drawn Atlantic Gold and other miners to the interior of the province's Eastern Shore region.
The number of provincial exploration licences shot up from 259, covering 35,000 hectares, to 417 licences covering almost 97,000 hectares last year. Those include other minerals, but the Department of Natural Resources said "gold is a target for many."
Another mining company, Newfoundland-based Anaconda, has purchased a gold mine in Goldboro, 185 kilometres northeast of Halifax, with plans to mine and ship ore from the site to its central processing site in Newfoundland within three years.
Nova Scotia's 21st century gold industry differs from the era of underground shafts at Moose River Gold Mines, the site of a world-famous 1936 cave-in that trapped three men and led to the live broadcast of a dramatic rescue that was heard across the continent.
Geologists are now seeking tiny flecks of the precious metal in the folds of ordinary, "host" rock that held the quartz, rather than exclusively in the quartz veins that characterize underground gold mines.
The new Moose River mines are open pits the size of multiple football fields, using daily explosions to extract tonnes of ore along with a mass crushing and leaching to draw out tiny amounts of gold.
The concept relies on massive volumes of ore, a standardization of crushing methods that keep costs down, close proximity to ports and cities — Halifax is less than 90 minutes away — and a relatively strong gold price.
25,000 tonnes of ore moved every day this fall
John Wightman, executive director of the Nova Scotia Prospectors Association, said the old-timers who ran the underground mines in places like Moose River, Caribou or Goldboro in the last century never would have imagined the scene unfolding near their idled shafts.
"We're looking at deposits for the most part that are disseminated gold, which means the grade is low compared to traditional mines," he said.
At the Touquoy site, pits have been blasted deep into the ground.
During a tour, chief operations officer Maryse Belanger said about 25,000 tonnes of ore will start to be moved around the grounds each day this fall.
Some will go to build the dam being erected in the distance, other portions go into construction on the site and about a quarter will be put through a processing plant being built on higher ground.
Redefining what the industry can do
"Open pit mining here in Nova Scotia is part of redefining what the [Canadian] industry can do," she said, as she stands in front of grey rock face where the first ore will be blasted into 15-centimetre chunks.
She said after her firm assembled a series of properties in 2014 in the centre of the province, it was able to raise about $150 million in investment.
Those funds pay for a processing plant built by Australia's Ausenco firm, where massive quantities of ore will be pulverized. The flecks of gold that gravity and crushing can't extract is drawn away by cyanide flowing through tanks.
Each tonne of rock averages about 1.45 grams of gold — roughly the equivalent of a few paper clips next to an adult elephant.
The gold will be stored in a windowless, three-storey building where furnaces are to create the bullion bars before they're stored in a thick cement vault currently under construction.
As Belanger gives the tour, heavy trucks lumber around the property, building holding areas for a pond where water from the project is stored before being returned to the environment.
This discarded water is among the environmental concerns raised by some residents of the region.
Retiree Barbara Markovits said nitrogen in the effluent — in part from the explosives — may lead to unnatural enrichment of surrounding waters, leading to potential fish kills.
"We remain concerned about the ongoing water quality of the effluent when that mine starts," said Markovits, a member of the Eastern Shore Forest Watch, who suspects open-pit gold mining may prove to be a temporary industry that's highly dependent on keeping costs low.
The company responded in an email that nitrogen levels can be controlled through proper selection of explosives that won't produce the residues and are highly insoluble in water.
Markovits said her group also wants effluent-quality test results to be placed online within "days or hours."
As well, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is demanding further information on the impacts of the second open pit, the Beaver Dam project, which would have trucks carrying ore over rural highways to Touquoy.
Belanger said the company's response to the issues will be posted "in the coming weeks," and that its proposed hauling route "does not pass by any existing homes."
Bringing back more mining jobs
But amidst environmental worries, there are also Nova Scotia mining professionals grateful for the chance to return home for work.
The Touquoy site alone is expected to result in 200 new jobs in the area.
For geologists and hard-rock miners who grew up in the province, the gold industry means a return home and a chance to prove open pit mining will have a net benefit.
Douglas Keating, the son of an Eastern Shore fisherman, spent decades travelling the globe, including time working in Africa with Belanger.
"I've been in this industry for 35 years and it's nice to come back home," the chief assayer said during a tour of his lab.
"I'd like to bring a lot more people back here as well."