By Richard Bell
One of the most important environmental struggles in Nova Scotia is taking place along the Eastern Shore over the plans of Atlantic Gold Corporation for years of gold mining through a series of open-pit gold mines centered around its open-pit mine near the old gold mining town of Moose River Gold Mines.
Nova Scotia is in the midst of its third gold rush. The first was from 1861-1874, and the second from 1896-1903. The soaring price of gold is driving the latest rush. At more than $1200 US$ an ounce, mining companies can make money mining ore containing only a tiny amount of gold (as little as 1.4 grams per metric ton!), grinding the ore into a powder and then soaking it in a cyanide solution. The gold-stripped slurry of water and the remaining finely ground rock that emerges from this process is called tailings.
Disposing of the gold-stripped tailings is a gigantic environmental challenge. The tailings contain a dangerous mixture of arsenic and heavy metals and whatever residues of the highly toxic cyanide that was not removed in the processing plant. Company plans call for processing 2 million tons of ore a year, almost all of which will end up as tailings.
For the Touquoy mine, Atlantic Gold has constructed a multi-step process for greatly reducing the amount toxic material reaching local watersheds.
--From the plant, the slurry goes by pipeline to a tailings “pond,” an artificial body of water where large particles settle out and exposure to sunlight neutralizes cyanide.
--Water from the tailings pond goes through a small filtration plant into a “polishing” pond, where additional toxic materials settle out and are periodically removed and buried in lined “cells” engineered to prevent them from leaking.
--And at the end, liquid from the polishing pond goes through an engineered wetland before it can reach the Scraggy Lake and the Fish River systems that runs through the Ship Harbour Long Lake Wilderness Area and on to the ocean.
This multi-step process for reducing the toxicity of the tailings was at the heart of the province’s environmental approval of the project. But there’s actually not all that much gold in the Touquoy deposit, which will be exhausted in less than 5 years. So after winning provincial approval for the Touquoy open pit mine as a stand-alone project in 2008, Atlantic Gold then unveiled a new proposal that would keep the processing plant at Touquoy running for many more years.
The company proposed another open-pit mine 37 km east of Touquoy at Beaver Dam. The company would dig up the ore at Beaver Dam and use upwards of 200 daily truck round trips to ship the ore to Touquoy for processing. Under this plan, both the Touquoy open pit mine and the Beaver Dam open pit mine would now be referred to collectively as the Moose River Consolidated Project.
By adding in the ore from Beaver Dam, the company would get a much better return on the processing plant it was already building in Moose River. And the company is considering squeezing even more years out of this plant by trucking in ore from additional open pit mines along the Shore, starting with deposits at Cochrane Hill and Fifteen Mile Stream. Atlantic Gold calls this proposed chain of open pit mines “a string of pearls.”
The Touquoy mine is in the final stages of construction and is expected to begin mining and milling gold shortly. The Beaver Dam mine project is currently under federal environmental review by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). The CEAA is expected to make its final ruling on the Beaver Dam project within the next 60 days. Two of the major outstanding issues threatening CEAA approval are:
--first, the discovery of a federally protected rare species of lichen with the unlikely name of the Frosted Glass-Whiskers Lichen;
--and second, the company’s proposal to pipe the tailings from the Beaver Dam ore straight into the unlined pit at Touquoy, dropping all of the protections built into handling the tailings from the Touquoy mine.
The Cooperator will report on CEAA’s findings in the October issue.