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 which, to this day, are found 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 21st century civility while inexorably drawn to all thing shiny.
Michael Parsons is a research scientist with Natural Resources Canada who, among other things, evaluates 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 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 well represented in all resulting tailings. But there are two other chemical concerns which require a bit more history.
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 to 25 per cent of which became lost in tailings, never to be recovered. As well, beginning in the 1890s, mines began employing cyanide for the same purpose, an extremely dangerous substance which also contaminated historic tailings.
Nowadays the tailings of any operation must be treated with the utmost care and planning, relegated inside tailings impoundments which 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, however, these tailings were discharged out the back door, 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 must contend with the legacy of tailings from an unregulated era they intend to dig up.
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 can no more break down than can oxygen. 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 was effectively discontinued in Nova Scotia in the 1940s.
So 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, said Michael, having toured many dozen examples in the course of his career, but mistakes do happen.
The Mount Polley Mine Disaster in British Columbia is a startling example, where, 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 search for salvation in the rigours of regulation. It’s that the majority of gold mined today is not used for anything important, such as cell phones or other electronics. Instead the majority, in fact the vast majority, of excavated gold is stored in bank vaults, securing financial assets in a form more reliable than simple currency, or else used as jewelry, more than justifying my chide of primitive primates and their intense fascination of all things shiny.
If appropriately recycled from electrics – and yes, you should be properly recycling your electronics – our practical demands for gold mining 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, and so would rank far below the values of the river itself, because once again, accidents do happen.
Michael said 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, and 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 Michael 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 make every effort to contact for next week’s column. As well we should take recycling seriously so that these mines don’t become a fixture of the future.
My final contention, for now, is that mines which 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.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist, and author active across the Maritimes.