What you need to know about gold mining in Nova Scotia
The province's gold mining industry is booming. But some warn there could be a high price to pay
The signs and booths from the Nova Scotia Gold Show have been packed away, but the debate sparked by the province's burgeoning gold mining industry is likely to continue for years to come.
The conference earlier this month brought together 180 investors and representatives of mining and exploration companies outside Halifax to highlight the province's gold mining potential. Organized by the Mining Association of Nova Scotia, the event was supported by $52,000 from the provincial government.
"What we're doing is showcasing a bunch of the projects that we believe are going to be the next big thing for the province and helping those companies attract the investment that they need to keep investing millions of dollars in Nova Scotia," Sean Kirby, the association's executive director, told the CBC's Information Morning.
But outside the Alt Hotel, where the show took place, about 100 demonstrators gathered to air their concerns about an industry they say is environmentally destructive and economically questionable.
What's the current state of the N.S. gold industry?
Right now, the province has one operating gold mine.
The Touquoy mine in Moose River, near Middle Musquodoboit, opened in 2017. According to the company, the mine produced 90,500 ounces of gold in 2018, which would be worth about $181 million with an ounce of gold valued at about $2,000.
The mine expects to produce between 95,000 and 105,000 ounces this year. The mine was purchased this spring by Australian company St Barbara for $722 million.
Four other gold mines are in the environmental assessment stage, including three proposed by St Barbara subsidiary Atlantic Gold — Beaver Dam, Cochrane Hill and Fifteen Mile Stream — and Anaconda Mining's proposed Goldboro mine.
But as those projects slowly wend their way through the approvals process, there are more that could be waiting in the wings.
Where are mining companies exploring?
The provincial Energy and Mines Department says there are about 36,000 staked claims across the province, about 70 per cent of which are for gold.
There has been a significant uptick in exploration activity in recent years, with more than 1,100 exploration licences currently issued, up from 495 five years ago.
Northern Shield Resources is exploring between New Glasgow and Antigonish, Transition Metals is targeting areas in the Cape Breton Highlands, Osprey Gold is exploring in several areas including the historic Goldenville site, MegumaGold is hoping to find gold in various areas surrounding other companies' claims and SLAM Exploration is planning to drill in Mount Uniacke.
Staff within the Energy and Mines Department have also been studying the area between Wentworth and Warwick Mountain in the Cobequid Highlands and plan to issue a call for exploration proposals in the near future.
What are the economic benefits of a gold mine?
The gold mining sector has already brought many jobs and economic benefits to Nova Scotia, say industry advocates and the minister of energy and mines, Derek Mombourquette.
The mining and quarrying industries employ more than 5,000 Nova Scotians, with average annual wages of $55,000, according to the Mining Association of Nova Scotia.
About 280 people are employed full-time at the Touquoy gold mine, receiving about $20 million in total wages and generating $2.34 million in income tax so far this year, according to the province.
There are an additional 40 to 60 full-time contractors at the site.
The company says its operation at Touquoy and exploration work at other sites in the province have generated a total of about 350 jobs.
The company has also spent $25.5 million on local supplies and $10 million on local contractors, the province says.
"That really is what our industry is about — it's about creating the jobs, giving Nova Scotians the opportunity to find excellent, high-paying work and contributing to government revenues that pay for things like health and education," says Sean Kirby of the mining association.
What's in it for Nova Scotians?
Opponents say the economic benefits to the province are not what they should be.
Joan Kuyek is a community-focused mining analyst and the founding co-ordinator of Mining Watch Canada. She was in Nova Scotia last week for the release of her new book, Unearthing Justice.
"If you think about what happened with Atlantic Gold, they sold that company to St Barbara for $722 million and Nova Scotians have gotten nothing out of that," she told the CBC's Information Morning.
"People who are benefiting from it are the major investors in the company."
Despite the high price tag on the mine, the province reaped just $2.5 million in royalties from the mine between 2017 and September 2019, according to the province.
Any provincial taxes owed in 2018 were offset by losses before gold production started in 2017, the province told CBC News, and the company received $1.17 million from the fuel tax rebate from 2017 to 2019.
Kuyek says even the amount of money remitted to the government through income tax likely isn't a significant boon, as most employees probably had jobs before starting work at the mine.
"They're not being honest about the amount of money that's generated by mining."
Plus, Kuyek says, employment at the current and proposed mines will not last more than 12 years, when the proposed mines are slated to finish production.
Kuyek even questions the necessity of mining gold.
"All the gold we could ever need has already been mined and most of it's in jewelry and vaults."
She says recycling that gold — including the gold in electronic equipment — is cheaper and more efficient than mining it.
What is the impact on the environment?
For many opponents, the potential environmental consequences of gold mines are not worth the touted benefits.
Nova Scotia already has dozens of sites that were contaminated by gold mining dating back to the 1860s. During those times, mercury and cyanide were used to extract gold from rock, and the waste was simply dumped on the ground or in nearby waterways.
The mining association argues that environmental regulations and technology mean modern gold mining is "not your grandfather's mining industry."
But Kirby says public perceptions of the industry haven't kept pace with those advances.
"People don't have the opportunity to visit a modern mine on a daily basis so they don't see how the industry has changed in all those years," says Kirby.
"Nobody would criticize today's auto industry because the Model T didn't have seatbelts; everybody sees cars every day they're in them. They know how cars have evolved over the years.
"In essence, mining has done the same thing over the last 150 years. But people don't get to see that."
No one from Atlantic Gold was made available to speak with CBC News, but in a statement, a company spokesperson said St Barbara works with provincial and federal governments to meet or exceed environmental regulations. The Touquoy mine has 90 water-monitoring stations and water is tested on a set schedule.
"We are proud that St Barbara's legacy for our children is and will continue to be the safe and environmentally focused stewardship of our modern operations in Nova Scotia," said the statement.
What are some of the environmental concerns?
Raymond Plourde of the Ecology Action Centre says modern gold mining isn't like its predecessors.
"It's much worse," he says.
First of all, Plourde says, there's the sheer size of the mines. Unlike historical gold mines, which were underground operations that followed a visible vein of gold, open-pit gold mines are enormous.
According to Atlantic Gold, the footprint of the Touquoy mine's operations is about 250 hectares, or more than three times the size of Halifax's Point Pleasant Park.
Since the gold is found in tiny, even microscopic, amounts it can take more than a tonne of ore to extract a single gram of the precious metal — the equivalent of the weight of a paper clip compared with that of a small car.
The leftover rock, along with the chemicals used to separate the gold, is then stored on site in heaps of ore and in ponds.
That process worries environmentalists for several reasons. Nova Scotia's rock has natural occurrences of uranium, arsenic, copper, iron, sulphide and other chemicals, some of which produce runoff that can affect wildlife and human health.
"This is a highly polluting industry and it leaves behind its mess forever to deal with," says Plourde.
The province says Atlantic Gold has a $10.4-million reclamation bond for the site to remediate it once operations cease.
But Scott Beaver, one of the demonstrators who gathered outside the Nova Scotia Gold Show, questioned whether that would be enough to deal with a worst-case scenario.
"There's no money in a bond for an environmental disaster. What if something terrible happens there? What if the dam breaches and breaks and pours tailings into this habitat?" says Beaver, who is also the president of the St. Mary's River Association, a group working to protect and improve a river next to the proposed Cochrane Hill mine.
What's it like to live near a gold mine?
Some residents who live near the Touquoy mine say their quality of life has suffered since it opened in 2017.
Harry Kelly says he and his wife used to take their mountain bikes on the Moose River Road, but the speeding traffic and the dust make that too dangerous now.
"Sometimes that dust is so thick in the air you really don't know what you're breathing," he says.
Shauna Higgins has lived in the community of Moose River for about 35 years, and currently lives about 12 kilometres from the mine.
She says while the mine has supported the local food bank and the hospital, it has also negatively impacted the community.
Higgins used to walk along the Moose River Road with a group of friends every morning.
"We wouldn't dare consider it now because you'd be taking your life in your hands."
Higgins says there are many heavy trucks, including trucks hauling toxic materials, on the road, and they pass over a one-lane bridge over the Musquodoboit River that has blind access on one side.
"Our fear is it's just a matter of time before there could be a very tragic accident on this road."
With files from Phlis McGregor, Paul Palmeter and Information Morning