Alana Westwood is an assistant professor at the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University.
Nova Scotia has had three gold rushes since colonization: one in the 1800s, one at the beginning of the 1900s and, most recently, in 1942. Eighty years later, the gold market is sitting near an all-time high — but this time, things are different: we’ve moved from miners with pickaxes to open pits deeper than high-rises, their waste stored in open tailings ponds the size of multiple football fields.
Like many places since the COVID-19 pandemic, Nova Scotia has experienced sharp rises in land values putting pressure on not only would-be homeowners, but also farmers and woodlot owners. Yet, the cost for any individual or company to obtain a mineral exploration licence — staked claims to the minerals found in the ground — is just 61 cents per hectare. Visions of enormous profit combined with a low upfront prospector cost has resulted in an explosion of exploration. Most licences are intended for gold.
In 2013, our calculations show there were 158 mineral exploration licences covering approximately 1.5 per cent of Nova Scotia’s total subsurface. Ten years later that number had jumped to 2,124 licences, covering 18 per cent of the province’s land mass. Although most claims don’t turn into mines — they’re often an effort by companies to assure shareholder confidence — many will still enter into the provincial environmental assessment process with the hopes of being approved for mining.
It’s anticipated most new mines will be proposed to mill less than 5,000 tonnes of ore per day, avoiding triggering the more rigorous federal environmental assessment law: the Impact Assessment Act. Last updated in 2019, the act governs the application process for most of the largest resource extraction and infrastructure projects. Whether a project is subject to this act depends on its size and type (for example, projects that cross borders undergo federal assessment).
Most mines, however, go through provincial assessments. In Nova Scotia, the environmental assessment regulations, used to evaluate potential economic, social, health and environmental impacts associated with development, have not changed since 1995. Unlike the federal environmental assessment law, provincial assessments in Nova Scotia do not legislate companies to consider climate change, cumulative effects of a project or impacts on Indigenous peoples and surrounding communities.
When assessments don’t adequately incorporate science, risks from mining can rise dramatically. Abandoned mine sites from past gold rushes in Nova Scotia are currently leaching toxic heavy metal contaminants into groundwater and waterways.
Canadian history is riddled with examples of harm caused by gold mines, with a recent example being the only currently operational gold mine in Nova Scotia, the Touquoy gold mine. Its proponent, Atlantic Gold, received a $250,000 fine last year for breaking laws by harming freshwater ecosystems. A more staggering example is the 2014 tailings dam collapse at the Mount Polley mine in B.C., one of the largest environmental disasters caused by gold mining.
With this less-than-flattering track record in mind, Nova Scotians are paying attention to Atlantic Gold’s proposals for the Beaver Dam gold mine (5,750 tonnes per day) and Fifteen Mile Stream gold mine (5,480 tonnes per day). These two are both being assessed federally, but the Goldboro gold mine (4,000 tonnes per day) underwent the provincial environmental assessment.
Nova Scotia’s provincial assessment splits the regulatory regime into two: a small-scale process (Class I) and a large-scale one (Class II). Despite gold mines often having substantial footprints with relatively high risks to the environment, the province designates these assessments as Class I because they are “smaller in scale and may or may not cause significant environmental impacts or be of sufficient concern to the public.”
That’s the assessment Signal Gold received after submitting an application for the Goldboro mine in June 2022. Just 50 days later, the project was approved, despite many comments expressing concern with technical aspects of the proposal. The timeline was too brief for experts to conduct detailed reviews of the lengthy application — 26 files totalling 5,925 pages — despite warnings from government scientists that potential environmental risks had been underestimated.
These short approval timelines certainly don’t allow for sufficient public, expert or (apparently) even internal government scrutiny. And yet, there is an even murkier policy loophole in Nova Scotia. Once a mine is approved, the proponent can apply for an industrial approval to change or alter its operations. The approvals are not subject to public or Indigenous consultation, and most documents detailing them are not available to the public.
One industrial approval of note is the tailings dam height increase that was approved last summer at the Touquoy mine, a project that was assessed and approved in 2008 at an estimated ore production capacity of 4,500 tonnes per day. Now, the Touquoy project is producing ore at 8,400 tonnes per day due to expansions approved behind closed doors. The Goldboro gold mine seems destined for a similar fate. Despite being approved for construction just last year, Signal Gold has already “identified a significant opportunity to expand the existing … Goldboro Deposit for a further two kilometres,” hinting at following suit with a future industrial approval expansion.
Like the federal environmental assessment process did in 2019, it is time for the province of Nova Scotia to update its nearly 30-year-old environmental assessment laws and regulations. The 2021 mandate letter to Nova Scotia’s current minister of environment and climate change set out an objective of “amending the environmental assessment legislation to give voice to diverse and equity-seeking communities.” Acting on this objective must happen now, as mining claims are staked at an unprecedented rate in the province’s history.
To mitigate potential risks from future gold mining, an immediate short-term recommendation is to place all mining projects in the Class II environmental assessment process, which allows for more robust public input. Simultaneously, the province should work towards revamping the environmental assessment process to more closely mirror the rigour of federal environmental assessment. This includes increasing timelines for Indigenous engagement, increasing the window for public or expert input from 30 days to at least 100 days and providing funding to support the public to participate.
The industrial approval loophole needs to be closed by drafting a clear, transparent and standardized assessment framework for how this process works, and ensuring that all documentation related to industrial approvals is publicly available in the permanent record. Finally, an updated law should include legally binding environmental assessment requirements for climate change, cumulative effects and impacts on marginalized peoples.
A revitalized, transparent, environmental assessment regime that separates science and politics would provide hope that today’s Maritime gold rush is inclusive and sustainable.
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