Residents worried about proposed gold mine near Sherbrooke

About 60 residents and community groups shared their thoughts about the proposed mine with the federal environmental assessment agency.

Atlantic Gold wants to develop an open-pit mine that would operate for six years

Concentrate from the proposed Cochrane Hill mine would be trucked to Atlantic Gold's Touquoy mine for processing. (Atlantic Gold)

Residents and community groups are worried about the potential impact of a proposed gold mine on the Eastern Shore.

Atlantic Gold wants to develop an open-pit mine near Melrose, N.S., about 13 kilometres north of Sherbrooke.

The mine, which would operate for six years, would see two million tonnes of ore mined, crushed and concentrated at the site, then hauled 142 kilometres away along Highway 7 to the company's existing Touquoy mine in the former village of Moose River Gold Mines.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) asked people to weigh in on whether a federal environmental assessment was necessary for the project and received 60 submissions from residents and organizations. Almost all of them agreed the assessment is needed.

Economic impact

Among the comments, only two were uniformly positive about the proposal.

Chris Pelley-Moore said the project should go ahead "unburdened," as "the economic potential for the region cannot be overstated," and Michael MacGillivray said "we need to encourage as many business opportunities as possible."

About 190 people would work at the mine. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

The mine is projected to create up to 190 full-time jobs, but that number would climb to 300, including contractors, during construction.

A submission by the Municipality of the District of St. Mary's, the jurisdiction where the proposed mine would be located, acknowledged the project could bring jobs and families to the area. But it also raised concerns about the potential impact on the watershed of the St. Marys River — a hotspot for anglers and paddlers — and on highway safety and infrastructure.

Others questioned the long-term economic impact of those jobs. "Who would buy/build a home, buy a vehicle or start a family with a five-year forecast of work?" wrote Milton Gallant.

Effects on tourism

Many submissions to the CEAA raised concerns about the impact on the "pristine" environment and the tourism sector that relies on that reputation.

The executive director of Sherbrooke Village, a historical re-enactment museum and the largest employer in Guysborough County, said the mine would be visible from the main highway, and that could "pose a significant disincentive to potential tourism" and affect the "nature brand" of the county.

Several parcels of land on or near the St. Marys River have been protected by the Nova Scotia Nature Trust. (Len Wagg)

In a statement, Atlantic Gold said tourism and mine development are "not mutually exclusive activities and can proceed in harmony."

Scott Beaver lives about two kilometres from the proposed mine site.

He said the mine would be a "big giant eyesore in the middle of our community."

"Will tourists want to come for that?" he said in an interview. "Who knows, but that's what our community is based on, is tourism. … Ecotourism and mining, they don't really seem to go hand in hand."

Scott Beaver has started a group called No Open Pit Excavation to fight the mine proposal. (Submitted by Scott Beaver)

Beaver has started a group called No Open Pit Excavation (NOPE) to fight the mine proposal, and has launched a petition and organized a meeting to rally the community against the mine.

"There's only one goal here, is to stop that mine from coming here," he said.

Environmental concerns

Beaver is also the president of the St. Marys River Association, which has put years of work and about a million dollars into restoring the river, an important habitat for at-risk species like Atlantic salmon and wood turtles.

Years ago, the river was a mecca for fishermen, he said.

"It would be nothing to see boats and 30 people lined up in a fishing line with their fly-fishing rods waiting for their turn for that big salmon. Hopefully, one day we can get back to that. That's kind of the goal."

Beaver said this year was one of the driest seasons ever, and "you could almost walk across" the river.

The St. Marys River has had low water levels in recent years. (Jeff Amos)

Among his many concerns about the project is Atlantic Gold's proposal to extract more than 23,000 litres a day from the surface, or groundwater, to support mine operations.

"Any water that you're taking out of the system is just not sustainable to habitat and fish life," he said.

The St. Marys River is one of two used by the federal Fisheries Department to assess the recovery of the endangered Atlantic salmon population. The Nova Scotia Salmon Association said disruptions to the watershed could affect the ability to gather valuable information about conservation.

The Nova Scotia Nature Trust, which has protected about 1,000 acres of land near the river, is concerned about the possible impact of a mine on wetlands and wildlife. The organization has three parcels of conserved land near the proposed mine, and another is in progress.

The Ecology Action Centre noted that the proposed mine site overlaps with a piece of land the provincial government is in the process of designating as protected — a designation that would not allow for mining on the land.

The company said it has hired environmental scientists and engineers to help develop the project, and will work with stakeholders to ensure it doesn't adversely affect the river and surrounding communities.

Other gold mines proposed

The Cochrane Hill project is one of four currently in development or in operation by Atlantic Gold along the Eastern Shore. The Touquoy mine began commercial production in March, while the proposed Beaver Dam and Fifteen Mile Stream projects are still under federal environmental review.

The proposals for Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream and Cochrane Hill all include trucking gold concentrate to the Touquoy site for processing and tailings deposition — something that worries Barbara Markovits of the Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association.

The association has asked the CEAA to revisit the approval of the Touquoy operation, since that project got the green light about 10 years ago.

"We need a federal look at whether the tailings dam that was approved 10 years ago at Touquoy meets the current regulations and concerns," Markovits said in an interview. "A failure, they're not frequent, but when they do fail, they're catastrophic."

Company responds

In a statement, Atlantic Gold said it was impressed with the submissions, "which confirmed much of what we already knew to be important to the community," and said it will hold another open house in early 2019 to engage with residents and share the results of ongoing studies.

The company said it expects a federal assessment will be ordered, and has already been preparing for that.

The CEAA will decide by Nov. 23 whether a federal environmental assessment for the Cochrane Hill project is warranted.

About the Author

Frances Willick

Reporter

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca