Where Salmon Swim and Miners Muddle: Protected Nova Scotian River Confronts Proposed Gold Mine

Nova Scotia’s wildest remaining river must now contend with the realities of open pit mining, putting decades of concerted conservation at odds with the high price of gold.

Salmon fishing on the St Mary’s River is the stuff of legend, having once attracted such heavy hitters as Babe Rush and Michael J Fox, and spurred the economies of otherwise remote communities. When these same salmon began to dwindle, however, a small army of anglers formed the St Mary’s River Association (SMRA) in 1979, intent on restoration.

“We look after the river,” said president Scott Beaver, indicating the fish ladders they’ve built over human obstacles, stocking initiatives to bolster salmon, signage to direct and educate visitors, and the multitudes of citizen science they’ve undertaken in the last four decades. Since 2014 they’ve spent $1.1 million rebuilding riverbanks and spawning habitat pulverized by historic log drives, and just last year received $1.2 million to shield this river from acid rain. At long last, salmon are returning to the St Mary’s.

But in the fall of 2018, representatives of Atlantic Gold – the BC based mining corporation – sought an audience with Scott and his board of directors, proposing an open pit gold mine one kilometre long, half a kilometre wide and 80 metres deep alongside the St Mary’s, drawing its water from the pristine Archibald Lake, holding its toxic tailings behind dams which overlook the watershed, and discharging its treated effluent into the Cameron Lakes which drain through McKeens Brook, arguably the most productive spawning habitat on the entire river. In total, the project would involve some 240 hectares.

“My life completely changed,” said Scott.

St Mary's River
St. Mary’s River.
Irwin Barrett

Borders and Boundaries

The Nova Scotia Nature Trust (NSNT) has a simple mandate – acquire the most ecologically significant properties throughout Nova Scotia and protect them in perpetuity, and the St Mary’s River has kept them busy.

This river, aside from its outstanding fishery, has on its banks an unusual abundance of old growth and floodplain forests, provincial rarities whose ancient hemlocks, maples, oaks and spruce contain a suite of species-at-risk, their fates tied to the river, their names omitted to discourage poaching. Since 2006, this charity has constructed a network of protected properties totalling 540 hectares along the river, with more on the horizon.

“This is starting to become a major natural corridor,” said Bonnie Sutherland, executive director of the Nova Scotia Nature Trust. “You have habitat connectivity for wildlife, the chance for long term viability for these amazing floodplain forests, the old growth hemlocks, habitat for endangered turtles and birds, and maybe, someday, the Atlantic salmon can make a comeback. It’s pretty ironic that this proposed mine is coming at the height of conservation achievement on this river.”

The proposed Cochrane Hill Gold Mine, as it’s known, was as staggering to Bonnie Sutherland as to Scott Beaver. It would necessitate the realignment of the nearby Highway 7, sending it through protected NSNT land and paving old growth hemlocks in the process, offending resident wildlife with noise, dust and vibrations, and the contamination of surrounding soils and water. NSNT’s mandate makes consent for such a project impossible, and so would require the provincial government to expropriate their land away from them under either the Mining Act or Highways Act.

“Expropriation would be wrong on so many levels,” said Bonnie. “This is something you don’t realize is a threat until it looms over you.”

Since 2013 the provincial government has built upon the charitable efforts of the NSNT by announcing some 3,800 additional hectares of protected public land alongside the river in forthcoming provincial parks, wilderness areas and nature reserves, together with NSNT land enveloping 54 kilometres of St Mary’s riverbank and covering some 4,300 hectares. The expropriation of any for industrial use, said Bonnie, could undermine the entire enterprise.

St. Mary's River
St. Mary’s River.
Irwin Barrett Photo

String of Pearls

The Ecology Action Centre (EAC) is a Halifax based environmental advocacy group and charity which has kept a close watch on Atlantic Gold’s so-called “string of pearls,” four Nova Scotian gold mines intended to open in sequence over the next few years. First was the Moose River Gold Mine already in operation, to be followed by the Beaver Dam Mine Project, 15 Mile Stream Gold Project, then, finally, Cochrane Hill, itself planned for 2023. The latter three are in the process of environmental review.

Charlotte Connolly, campaign support officer with the EAC, is quick to differentiate these modern mines from those of Nova Scotia’s past – underground, high yield mines following gold veins or deposits. Modern open pit gold mines, however, aim to extract only small flakes of gold diffused throughout tonnes of rock. First the rock is excavated, crushed, treated so as to leach out the gold, then deposited in a pile, the resulting chemical muds relegated to tailings ponds where they remain long after the mine in question is discontinued.

“To put a mine here is a terrible idea,” she said, one which the reigning provincial government has wholeheartedly endorsed with 1 per cent royalty rates and a Mineral Resources Development Fund aiding prospectors and developers alike in their search for gold. The Mining Association of Nova Scotia has taken to the airwaves of CBC to declare a “Nova Scotian gold rush,” making claims of economic development the EAC considers exaggerated or else misleading.

“During gold rushes, everyone loses their minds, only seeing dollar signs,” said Charlotte. “They forget every other important thing in the world.”

Dr Michael Parsons, a geochemist and research scientist with Natural Resources Canada, said that while uranium, zinc and lead do occur naturally in Nova Scotian rock, they don’t tend to appear in mining wastes at very high concentrations. Arsenic, however, does, liberated and concentrated by mining and milling, and is therefore a leading concern for environmental contamination. Another is mercury.

In days gone by, mercury was commonly used in the gold extraction process and is therefore well represented in the historic tailings of Nova Scotia, some of which reside at Cochrane Hill, relegated there by underground gold mines between 1868 and 1928. If disturbed, this mercury could be another source of environmental contamination, a very real possibility to which Dr Parsons has dedicated significant research.

St Mary's River
St. Mary’s River.
Irwin Barrett Photo

No Open Pit Excavation

Following their presentation from Atlantic Gold, Scott Beaver and the board of the St Mary’s River Association made the awkward transformation from volunteers to activists, consulting experts on the polluting perils of gold mining, meeting with relevant ministers, MLAs and the premier, organizing protests, erecting signage and hosting public information sessions to educate and debate, all under their NOPE (No Open Pit Excavation) campaign.

Scott has been run off his feet, but is heartened by the number of area residents vocally opposing the Cochrane Hill Gold Mine, deeming it too great a risk to the social, economic and ecological values of the river. This collective cry of opposition, however, has focused on the negatives. There has been a great deal of good news on the St Mary’s River in Scott’s lifetime, even during his term as president, which he’s decided to showcase. What resulted was an underwater camera in just the right place, at just the right time.

Saving Salmon is the joint initiative of photographer Nick Hawkins and writer Tom Cheney, inspiring and informing Atlantic salmon conservation with stories collected across eastern North America, sometimes in words, sometimes in pictures, and now in footage. The pair accepted Scott’s invitation to visit the St Mary’s River and, with funding from the NOPE campaign, joined him for several expeditions in the summer and fall of 2019.

Their reward, aside from a great many photos and some compelling clips, were fifteen minutes of quality footage of a female salmon on her nest, an exceedingly rare filming opportunity which had thus far eluded the Saving Salmon team. Scott has confirmed with both the Atlantic Salmon Federation and Nova Scotia Salmon Association that such footage has never before been captured in the Maritimes, and it was taken, of all places, in McKeens Brook, immediately downstream of where the Cochrane Hill Gold Mine proposes to discharge its treated effluent.

This footage and accompanying photos have been collected and edited into an exhibition which Scott intends to tour, confronting the espoused profitability of the Cochrane Hill Gold Mine with the resurgence of the St Mary’s Salmon. The footage alone was launched during a press conference February 12th at Nova Scotia’s Museum of Natural History, Halifax.

“If they push a mine through to the St Mary’s, there’s no place in Nova Scotia, in my mind, that can be protected from mining,” he said. “The St Mary’s is the sacred spot.”

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. A version of this article was originally published with The Narwhal.

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