Nova Scotia

Some N.S. government staff voice concerns over study needed for proposed wilderness area

As officials with the Nova Scotia government decide whether to approve a new wilderness area that would affect a proposed gold mine, internal emails show disagreements about how to conduct a study required as part of that work.

Archibald Lake wilderness area was first announced for consideration in January 2020

The Nova Scotia government first announced it was considering Archibald Lake in Guysborough County as a new wilderness area in January 2020. (Nova Scotia Environment)

As officials with the Nova Scotia government decide whether to approve a new wilderness area that would affect a proposed gold mine, internal emails show disagreements about how to conduct a study required as part of that work.

The provincial government announced in January 2020 that it was considering the creation of the Archibald Lake wilderness area. The 684-hectare site in Guysborough County would be near the St. Marys River.

Last October, the government said it needed more time on the issue. Environment and Climate Change Minister Keith Irving said earlier this month he has no timeline for when he'll make a decision.

One of the steps required before a wilderness area designation can be applied is a socioeconomic study, which must be shared with the public before a final decision is announced.

According to emails CBC received through an access-to-information request, a draft analysis has been ready since at least May 2020, and has been updated several times since, but some people within the Energy and Mines Department are unhappy about how it's come together.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Keith Irving has said there is no timeline for a decision on the proposed Archibald Lake wilderness area. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

A working group including staff from the departments of Environment and Climate Change, Lands and Forestry and Energy and Mines were tasked with creating the socioeconomic study to consider the effects of the designation. However, some members of the public service took issue with that.

"I am not happy with a socioeconomic analysis being done in house," Robert Ryan, a manager with the Energy and Mines Department, wrote in an email.

"Socioeconomic impact evaluations should be done in consultation with professional economists. I might be a doctor (geology) but I cannot practice (sic) medicine nor am I or any of the technical committee qualified to conduct or properly assess a socioeconomic impact study."

Ryan was not the only person to take this position.

In an email to a colleague at the Environment Department, John MacNeil, registrar of mineral and petroleum titles for Energy and Mines, writes that "I feel that we may not be experts in socio-economic assessments." He goes on to say he has concerns about the process. However, that information is redacted.

MacNeil concludes his email by saying the values identified in the area should be "protected, developed and enjoyed by using tools other than wilderness area designation, many which are already being used by [Lands and Forestry]."

'An obstructionist ploy by anti-mining individuals,' says official

One of the things about the potential designation that makes it contentious for some people is what it would mean for the proposed Cochrane Hill gold mine program. Archibald Lake would not be allowed to be used by a mine, should the designation be approved.

Donald James, executive director of the geoscience and mines branch of the Energy Department, was blunt in his assessment of the designation being considered at all. The site was not included as part of the province's Parks and Protected Areas plan of 2013.

"The Archibald Lake area has clearly been suggested for protection as an obstructionist ploy by anti-mining individuals," he wrote. 

"Designation would impede development of the Cochrane Hills mine. This proposal to protect the area occurred after a public environmental assessment report was released. This sets a problematic [precedent], clearing a way for anti-development groups to delay or stop economic opportunities for the province."

Despite the protests about the approach, a spokesperson for the Environment and Climate Change Department said it is common practice for provincial government staff to write a draft socioeconomic analysis for proposed wilderness areas, with a goal of informing the decision-making process.

Officials with the mining company St. Barbara have asked the government to delay making a final decision on the wilderness area designation until the environmental impact statement for the Cochrane Hill project is submitted, likely in 2024.


With files from Frances Willick