Nova Scotia

Fate of salmon restoration project among concerns with proposed gold mine

More than 270 people or groups submitted comments on the proposed Beaver Dam gold mine as part of the environmental assessment process.

More than 270 people submitted comments on proposed Beaver Dam gold mine

The open-pit mine at Atlantic Gold's Touquoy mine in Moose River, N.S. The company wants to develop another gold mine northwest of Sheet Harbour called Beaver Dam. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

A conservation group that has spent the past two decades working to restore salmon habitat on the Eastern Shore is one of dozens of groups and individuals speaking out against a proposed gold mine.

The Nova Scotia Salmon Association submitted its comments to the federal government as part of the environmental assessment of the proposed Beaver Dam gold mine.

Atlantic Gold, the operators of the province's only gold mine, wants to develop a new mine in Marinette, N.S., 18 kilometres northwest of Sheet Harbour. The operation would cover 243 hectares and consist of an open pit, waste-rock storage, settling ponds and water treatment facilities.

Eddie Halfyard, a research scientist with the Nova Scotia Salmon Association, says a mine could jeopardize the group's work on the West River, which has seen the Atlantic salmon population grow from 3,000 to 11,000 smolts in recent years.

"In the best-case scenario, it's going to be a massive disturbance to our data and our projects, and in the worst-case scenario is there's a catastrophic de-watering of the river or a release of some substance that basically impacts the Atlantic salmon population that we've worked so hard to restore."

The open pit of the mine would be about 50 metres from the Killag River, one of the association's research sites, Halfyard said.

Trucks are lined up on a road at Atlantic Gold's Touquoy mine. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

The salmon association began its project on the West River in the early 2000s, hoping to treat the effects of acid rain and improve habitat for the fish. The early years of the project, which saw North America's first lime doser installed at the river to improve water quality, were funded entirely through volunteer fundraisers such as charity dinners, auctions and golf tournaments.

In 2019, the project's promise prompted the federal government to invest $4 million over four years so the association could continue its work and develop plans to restore other watersheds.

"But it's contingent on us continuing our evaluation," Halfyard said. "If we lose this opportunity, if it's impacted — or worse, destroyed — then it's not only a significant impact to us, but what it represents to our transition to a more sustainable future."

Halfyard said though the group is not anti-industry, as it has worked with the forestry industry in the past, it does not want the gold mine to be developed.

"At a minimum, what we want to see happen is a really thorough investigation of just what is going to be gained by this gold mine and what stands to be lost."

More than 270 comments received

Atlantic Gold's environmental impact statement for Beaver Dam received more than 270 comments during the month-long public feedback period.

Several were supportive, lauding the project's potential to bring jobs to the area and generate economic activity.

Some comments, written by employees of Atlantic Gold or its parent company, St Barbara, noted appreciation that the company's existing mine in Moose River, N.S., afforded them the opportunity to move home to Nova Scotia to raise their families.

Many of the supportive employee comments were based on a form letter that expresses belief the company will adhere to all applicable regulation and conveys confidence in the environmental studies the company has conducted so far.

Concerns about environment, harvesting rights

Much of the feedback on the proposed mine, though, was negative, with concerns including the potential for negative impacts on water, land and wildlife.

Some criticized the project for having limited economic benefits for the province, noting that the company is Australian and the mine will only operate from 2023 to 2027.

Some questioned the need to mine gold at all.

Gerald Gloade, a Millbrook First Nation band member, wrote that the community has reserve lands near the proposed mine site and worried about the impact of the project on harvesting rights.

"It is often assumed that our right to harvest is recreational; a pastime," he wrote. "Our rights, as they apply to resource usage and harvesting, exist for our people to avoid food insecurity. They are engrained in our way of life. The proposed mine runs the risk of compromising the quality and abundance of natural resources that we rely on for food."

Company facing charges

Others expressed a lack of trust in the company, which is already facing 32 environmental charges, including "failing to comply with the conditions of an approval" and "releasing substances into the environment in amount, concentration or level in excess of approval level or regulations."

The alleged offences took place between February 2018 and May 2020, and mostly involve the Touquoy operation, but also other locations, including Fifteen Mile Stream, Jed Lake and Seloam Brook.

The company is due in court in early January to make a plea on the charges.

The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada is now reviewing the public comments.

Company responds

Parent company St Barbara told CBC News it welcomes and appreciates input from people concerned about the proposed mine at the dam. 

In an email, a spokesperson said the company has been "an active and engaged proponent in this process and will continue to meet all requirements."

The company said it would provide a more substantive response to the concerns once it receives public comments submitted to the provincial and federal governments.

With regard to the salmon association, the company said it respects the group's efforts to preserve and grow salmon populations in the province for recreational fishing.

It said the company is committed to respecting the environment, noting the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada process "requires that we demonstrably show that our project will be able to address and mitigate any possible impacts to wetlands and fish around our operations."

"St Barbara is committed to this process and believes that the Beaver Dam gold mine can coexist with growing recreational fishing opportunities throughout the province," the email said.