About 370 million years ago, when Nova Scotia was in the act of mountain building, our planet’s tumultuous crust permitted the escape of two elements that remain concentrated together in our province’s bedrock. These were arsenic and gold which, eons later, would be respectively shunned and sought by a curious primate, touting civility while inexorably drawn to all thing shiny.
Michael Parsons is a research scientist with Natural Resources Canada. His job includes evaluating the merits of proposed Canadian mines where they concern bedrock, groundwater, and the influences of history.
He’s neither for nor against mining (he wouldn’t be very good at his job if he swung either way) but he says he feels obliged to faithfully inform decision makers and the general public on mining issues so that projects might be effectively judged and safely executed.
He told me the aforementioned history of gold and arsenic, and neatly narrated what should and should not be of serious concern during Nova Scotia’s self-proclaimed gold rush, embodied by the operational Moose River Gold Mine and four others as yet only proposed across the province.
Because of its close association with gold, arsenic is high on his list of concerns, concentrated by the mining and milling processes and common in the tailings that accumulate with mining. But there are two other chemical concerns.
When gold mining first descended on Nova Scotia in the 1860s, the industry’s element of choice for extracting gold from pulverized rock was mercury, 10–25% of which became lost in tailings, never recovered. As well, beginning in the 1890s, mines began using cyanide for the same purpose, which also contaminated historic tailings.
Nowadays regulations require companies treat the tailings of any operation with care and planning, stored in “tailings impoundments” that are further subdivided, shielded from water, dried, trapped under shields of clay, and eventually, buried and planted over with native vegetation. In the 1800s and for much of the 1900s, miners dumped these tailings into streams, holes, even oceans.
Those historic tailings and their concentrated medley of poisons are still out there, spanning much of the province in and around some 300 old gold mines. It’s effectively impossible to find a gold deposit in Nova Scotia which hasn’t been mined in centuries past, and so modern mines will be working around the toxic tailings from an unregulated era.
If cyanide has a bright side (and I’m not sure it does), it would be its tendency to break down over time. Michael’s research at historic mines like those of Cochrane Hill alongside the St. Mary’s River (which is presently contending with a modern mine proposed overtop by Atlantic Gold) demonstrates cyanide is not present in any significant quantity 40 years after it was last used on site. Cyanide is still, however, the compound of choice at modern mines such as Moose River, and remains a concern in the near term.
Mercury, however, is elemental, and doesn’t break down. It awaits anyone with a shovel overtop historic tailings, in spite of the fact that mercury use in gold mining was outlawed in Canada back in the 1970s, and effectively discontinued in Nova Scotia in the 1940s.
Mercury, arsenic, and sometimes cyanide are the baggage of modern gold mining in Nova Scotia, present in tailings and rock waste both, requiring thorough management and treatment before the waters of any mine may rejoin the surrounding environment. These things can be done correctly, says Parsons, having toured many dozen examples in the course of his career, but mistakes happen.
The Mount Polley Mine Disaster in British Columbia is a startling example. In 2014, a engineering mistake at the base of its tailings impoundment caused a rupture, spilling its toxins in a spectacular dam failure, the consequences to neighbouring watersheds both enormous and ongoing. They were mining copper and gold.
But there’s a wider view to be taken on the proposed mines of Nova Scotia, and it concerns the market in which this gold is being excavated, forcing us to play with fire and put our faith in regulations (and government’s enforcement of them).
The majority of gold mined today is not used for anything important, such as cell phones or other electronics. It’s stored in bank vaults (securing financial assets in a form more reliable than simple currency) or used as jewelry.
If we appropriately recycle it from electronics, our practical demands for gold plummet. And if we recognized the heavy environmental price tags of golden jewelry, gold mines globally could become unnecessary.
It certainly puts gold mines such as Cochrane Hill, proposed overtop the most heavily conserved, restored and protected river in Nova Scotia, into perspective. The gold has no value beyond contrived fortune and vanity, it’s far below the value of the river the mine would endanger. (Again, accidents happen.)
Parsons says that, when questioning the value or acceptable risks of modern mining, gold isn’t nearly as relevant as cobalt, copper, or any number of rare-earth elements essential for the proliferation of renewable power. Every one of our province’s wind turbines contain something like two tonnes of rare earth elements, and global demand for lithium will rise in tandem with our transition to electric vehicles.
What a spectacular transition it’s likely to be.
At the moment, many of these metals come from regions with questionable environmental regulations. This is not a criticism of electric cars or wind power. Sourcing is a nightmare for many products, including the things wind power and electric cars aim to replace.
But it does beg the question, are we exporting the perils of modern mining to other countries? Would it not be better, as Parsons suggests, for these mines to be domestic, their imperfections managed by Canadian law? If the risks must exist, shouldn’t they be ours, he asks, and not China’s, Bolivia’s and the Congo’s?
These are uncomfortable realities without easy answers. How Canadian mines can be achieved more sustainably, safely and without the application of fossil fuels is for better minds than mine to answer, minds I will contact for the next column.
My final contention, for now, is that mines that put our natural heritage at risk should remain unacceptable, doubly so then they are without greater merit to the human enterprise, such as those proposed by Atlantic Gold.