Photos suggest that there is a tailings leak at Atlantic Gold’s Moose River gold mine

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Photo (contributed) taken August 27 of the tailings facility at Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy open pit gold mine showing possible leak.

On August 27, a person who wishes to remain anonymous took aerial photos of the tailings facility at Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy open pit gold mine in Moose River, Nova Scotia, and sent them to Scott Beaver, president of the St. Mary’s River Association and part of the No Open Pit Excavation (NOPE) citizens’ group that opposes the company’s proposed gold mine at Cochrane Hill near Sherbrooke, one of three new mines the company has planned for Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore.

According to Beaver, who has been sharing the photos on social media, they show a tailings leak at the Touquoy mine, about 70 kilometres east of Halifax’s Stanfield International Airport.

“You are looking at a leak in the tailings dam wall,” writes Beaver in an email. “There is not yet any evidence that this has been reported as of yet. You can see in the pictures that they are using a small pump to pump the toxic water back into the tailings Impoundment. This is disturbing!”

Photo (contributed) taken August 27 of tailings dam at Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy gold mine in Moose River, HRM, showing possible leak of orange effluent and what looks like a small pump with a hose adjacent to it.

Photo (contributed) showing location of alleged leak at Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy gold mine tailings facility in Moose River, HRM. Tailings dam in the foreground, with tailings effluent outlet and Scraggy Lake in upper part of photo.

In a Facebook post, Beaver states:

The proposed tailings dam for Cochrane Hill is a disaster waiting to happen. The dam proposed at Cochrane Hill is 70 meters high, running along the nine-mile woods road for about 3 km, compared to a 40 meter high dam at BC’s mount Polley mine disaster site. Leaks like this one at the Moose River Touquoy mine operated by Atlantic Gold sure sends shivers down my spine!

Atlantic Gold says there are “no leaks or breaches”

The Halifax Examiner contacted Nova Scotia Environment to ask if Atlantic Gold, or its subsidiary Atlantic Mining NS that operates the Touquoy mine, had reported a leak at its tailings facility. Spokesperson Rachel Boomer replied:

The provincial Department of Environment and Climate Change has not received any information about a potential leak or spill at the Touqouy Gold Mine. Our staff will look into it.

I strongly encourage you, or any member of the public, to share any information about a potential leak.

On Saturday night, the Examiner also sent questions to Dustin O’Leary, communications manager for Atlantic operations of the Australian company, St Barbara Ltd, which owns Atlantic Gold:

  1. Has there been a leak in the tailings facility at the Touquoy mine?
  2. If so, when did it happen, how was it discovered, and what is the composition of the orange liquid that shows up outside the tailings dam?
  3. What is the cause of the leak?
  4. How much effluent leaked? Is it being pumped through the tailings dam back into the facility?
  5. Did any of the liquid leak beyond the outside canal where it appears to have collected outside the tailings dam?
  6. What is being done to remediate the leak and prevent more?
  7. Has Atlantic Mining NS notified Nova Scotia Environment about the leak?
  8. If there is no leak, can you please tell me what that orange liquid is and why it and a pump are clearly outside the tailings dam in the photos?

Atlantic Gold communications manager Dustin O’Leary at the ill-fated public information session in Sherbrooke, NS, in May 2019 at which John Perkins was violently arrested. Photo: Joan Baxter

O’Leary sent this reply:

I have confirmed with our General Manager of Operations that our tailings management facility at the Touquoy mine is operating normally and in full accordance with regulatory requirements. It was most recently inspected on Saturday evening as part of our daily inspection regime, with no leaks or breaches of any nature.  We can therefore confirm that no materials from the tailings management facility have entered the environment around the mine.

To provide further context — in addition to the inspection regime by our own team, the Touquoy mine’s tailings management facility has a third-party engineer of record for the build and ongoing construction that takes place. Additionally, Touquoy employs the services of third-party tailings facility experts called an Independent Tailings Review Board (ITRB) who inspect the facility twice a year to ensure its ongoing stability and work with our team to continuously improve our overall management of tailings on site.

One of St Barbara’s corporate commitments is to respect the environment and we take that commitment seriously. We respect the role of Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change and proactively work with them on all matters relating to environmental management.

In the absence of having the photo you referred to, we are unable to speak to what was viewed by the individual that captured the photo or its validity.

The Examiner then sent O’Leary one of the three photos, and asked what it showed, what the orange liquid outside the tailings dam was, if not a leak. Today, Sunday, O’Leary replied that he would be sending a reply. When that is received, we will update this article.

Bad timing

The last time there was an effluent spill at the Moose River mine was in January 2019. As the Examiner reported in March that year, that leak allowed 380,000 litres of contaminant-laced slurry to flow from the processing plant where ore is crushed and gold extracted, and down a trench underneath the double-lined 500-metre pipe that should have been carrying the effluent to the tailings pond. At the time, Atlantic Gold’s manager of environment and permitting, James Millard, told the Examiner that the company had “worked with an independent consultant” and that all the material, which contained arsenic and cyanide, had been excavated and placed in the tailings pond.

The timing of these new photos that appear to show something amiss with the Touquoy mine tailings dam is not good for Atlantic Gold.

In July, the company applied to the province for permission to make modifications at its Moose River gold mine, which is coming to the end of its life, and where it wants to process the ore from three new mines it has proposed for eastern Nova Scotia – at Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream, and Cochrane Hill. Among other modifications, Atlantic Gold is seeking approval from Nova Scotia Environment to store tailings in the exhausted pit at the Touquoy mine starting in 2022. (The Examiner reported on this here.)

Atlantic Mining NS, the subsidiary of St Barbara’s Atlantic Gold that operates the open pit Touquoy gold mine in Moose River, is seeking approval to store mine tailings in this pit once it has been exhausted. Photo: Joan Baxter

Nova Scotia’s minister of environment and climate change — whoever that will be after Nova Scotia Premier-designate Tim Houston’s new cabinet is sworn in on Monday, August 30 — is due to decide whether to grant approval for the modifications on or before September 5.

On September 9, Atlantic Gold will again be in court on 32 environmental provincial charges and on three federal ones. The company has appeared in court to enter pleas on the provincial charges on four previous occasions, and been granted an adjournment every time.

Nor are things looking all that rosy for St Barbara lately. As Tim Bousquet reported on August 27, St Barbara, which purchased Atlantic Gold in 2019 for $722 million, has just announced an annual loss of US$128 in the first half of 2021, compared with a profit in 2020, and according to Rhiannon Hoyle in the Wall Street Journal, an “impairment loss against assets totaling A$349.3 million, mostly related to the to the Atlantic Gold business.”

Although the company has also had to suspend production at its Papua New Guinea gold mine because of the death of a worker and a leaking deep sea tailings pipe, the company appears to be blaming the loss on Nova Scotian and Canadian regulators. In an article in Kitco, Vladimir Basov writes:

The company said that the impairment largely relates to the delay in commencement of mining due to permitting issues. It reflects an assessment based on best effort estimates relying on an incomplete Beaver Dam Feasibility Study for capital estimates and best effort estimates on the timing of permits required for each of the three satellite operations: Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream and Cochrane Hill.

St Barbara noted that there has been a delay in the issuing of permits by the Nova Scotia provincial government regulators and Canadian federal government regulators for all three satellite operations, which is the primary driver of the delay in first production from these future operations.

It also looks as if St Barbara intends to ramp up pressure on the Nova Scotia and Canadian governments to approve its new mines, as Basov writes:

St Barbara reiterated that it is committed to working with the Nova Scotian provincial and Canadian federal government regulators to expedite the permit approval process.

In addition, St Barbara said it has promoted Meryl Jones, St Barbara’s Head of Business Development, to the role of President Americas to lead efforts in North America to accelerate permitting and construction of future operations. Meryl will be relocating to Nova Scotia in the near future.

On Facebook where he published the photos showing what looks like an effluent leak, Scott Beaver alleges that while “Atlantic Gold are crying poor” about cost overruns, they are “using the equivalent of a garden pump to fix a breach in the main tailings pond that threatens Eastern Shore wilderness and rivers, streams and lakes.

And, adds Beaver in his no-holds-barred post:

Recent belly-aching performances about the increasing costs of extracting gold out of several gold claims on Nova Scotia’s pristine Eastern Shore deserve an academy award for both the drama and the significant risk that they are hiding in the news. Reporting that it is costing more, $200 million plus, and that the conditions for permitting are more complicated than expected are evidence that money and not morality is a root problem that is hiding what could be irreversible damage to some of the province’s last frontiers. Our wild, untouched and rugged undiscovered Eastern Shore!

It all leaves one wondering how they could be off by hundreds of millions and what have they hidden in pursuit of cheap gold at the expense of Nova Scotia’s environment. In fairness Nova Scotia should be welcoming industries that make a positive impact and live up to the often quoted, “leaving future generations some thing as good or better than we started with.” It is hard to reconcile that with canyon sized scars, mountains of potentially toxic overburden piles and man-made impoundments of toxic tailings water.

The facts get in the way of the truth and in this case money. Many international miners would find it not feasible to operate in Nova Scotia if they had to meet the moral standard of protecting and preserving the environment both as they operate and after they exhaust their claims. They operate large scale mines which are impressive and only to outdone by the fancy public relations and lobbying which are designed to feed false project feasibility to shareholders.

The Touquoy Gold Mine, which is nearing its end of operations on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore is a perfect example. Located in Moose River this massive watershed of lakes, ponds, streams, rivers and wetlands are clearly at risk from this mine’s toxic tailings pond. The operation poses a clear risk of incalculable proportions.

And just to be clear, tailing ponds are not 100% leak proof and the mining industry history is littered with disastrous breaches vulnerable to changing climate and weather. Many in 3rd world impoverished back water regions of the world starving for economic development and vulnerable to resource and environmental exploitation. Surely a site only a twenty-minute flight from our region’s capital, Halifax, deserves better!

Joan Kuyek, author of the 2019 book, Unearthing justice: how to protect your community from the mining industry, and co-founder of MiningWatch Canada, points out that she is not a technical expert on tailings. However, after looking at the photo of the Touquoy mine, she writes that it does appear to show a leak with acid mining drainage, which can cause serious pollution around mining sites even long after they close, posing “severe threats to ecological systems.”

John Perkins of the citizens’ group Sustainable Northern Nova Scotia (SuNNS), which opposes gold exploration and mining on Warwick Mountain in the French River watershed that supplies Tatamagouche with its water, tells the Examiner that a tailings facility leak should not surprise anyone:

Back in February 2018, SuNNS presented a dire warning [on page 10 of its presentation] of the likelihood of this very thing happening when we were asking Municipal Council of the County of Colchester to protect Warwick Mountain from gold mining. What we see at Touquoy is this danger arriving in Nova Scotia. If this is not startling enough, you should visit workdminetailingsfailures.org for reams more evidence. I hope the new Nova Scotia government will act on this immediately by halting all production and requiring an investigation as well as say no to future gold mines.

The Examiner has contacted several mining experts for an interpretation of the photos, and will report on any responses it receives.


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