Environmental group claims water tests at gold mine site have high levels of arsenic

This aerial photo shows the tailings pond at the Touquoy Gold Mine near Moose River, N.S. Scraggy Lake is in the foreground. (Ecology Action Centre - image credit)
This aerial photo shows the tailings pond at the Touquoy Gold Mine near Moose River, N.S. Scraggy Lake is in the foreground. (Ecology Action Centre - image credit)

An environmental group in Nova Scotia says a gold mine is responsible for high levels of arsenic in waterways nearby.

Members of Water is Life Nova Scotia have been doing regular water testing near the tailings dam at the Touquoy Gold Mine located in Moose River, about 65 kilometres northeast of Halifax.

What they discovered in late August near Scraggy Lake, which is located next to the mine, prompted them to come back and take more water samples.

"There was a yellow and orange liquid running through the woods," said Sydnee McKay. "We were quite shocked to see this."

The group, which has 200 members, has now collected several water and soil samples at the site.

Submitted by Sydnee McKay
Submitted by Sydnee McKay

Some of the lab tests showed arsenic levels five times higher than industrial approval limits. Further tests done in subsequent weeks showed levels were lower but still well above the limit.

Those results, including the GPS coordinates of where the tests were taken, were included in an information package that was shared with provincial and federal environment departments.

McKay says water from Scraggy Lake flows toward the coastline, eventually flowing into the ocean.

"We have not heard from the provincial government on this and it concerns me," said McKay. "I'm really worried about the water systems on the eastern shore."

A spokesperson for Nova Scotia's Department of Environment and Climate Change confirmed they received the information package and are reviewing it. When asked if the department has done any of their own testing at the site, the spokesperson said a determination on whether additional testing is required will be made once the review is complete.

The company that operates the mine, Australia-based St. Barbara Ltd., says it does daily inspections at the site and no recent leaks have been detected. They're also required to do regular water testing.

"Arsenic and other metals are naturally occurring elements in surface water and groundwater throughout the province of Nova Scotia and are tested as part of our routine sampling programs," Sarah Brannen, a communication consultant with St. Barbara, Atlantic Operations, said in an email statement. "Our testing and sampling procedures for ground and surface water are completed to meet federal and provincial requirements."

Part of a wall surrounding the open pit at the gold mine collapsed in late September following torrential rain from post-tropical storm Fiona. Material from the wall located above a production area slid into the pit. The storm also knocked out power at the facility for a week and a half.

McKay says ongoing extreme weather events are bound to cause significant impacts at the tailings dam. The organization will continue to take water and soil samples in the area. So far the testing they've done has cost about $5,000.

This isn't the first time environmental questions have been raised at the gold mine site.

Steve Lawrence/CBC
Steve Lawrence/CBC

Last year, St. Barbara was fined $10,000 and ordered to pay an additional $240,000 in financial penalties after pleading guilty to federal and provincial environmental charges. The company admitted it breached environmental laws by failing to properly test for the level of sediment in water that could be hazardous to fish habitat. It also failed to regularly report findings to government as required.

Local anglers are concerned to hear about high arsenic levels in recent tests.

"We fish Scraggy Lake and some other lakes in the area that are all connected," said Ryan Dickie, whose family has a fishing camp on Scraggy Lake. "This really makes us wonder if it will have a big impact on the habitat for all the fish back there."

In 2021, a provincial investigation into a discoloured substance found at the tailings dam concluded there was no risk to the environment in the incident.

At the time, an orange-coloured substance was spotted around the rock wall that separates the tailings pond from the surrounding area at the Touquoy mine.

Environmental groups were concerned that the tailings pond, which contains material left over after ore has been crushed and processed, was leaking into the environment. But provincial environment inspectors took samples of the substance and their investigation concluded it was from elevated iron concentrations from groundwater entering the collection pond.

The ownership of the mine, which employs 292 people, has undergone change.

When it first opened in 2017, Vancouver-based Atlantic Gold operated the mine. St Barbara purchased it in 2019. Last month, St Barbara announced it will be merging in June with Genesis Minerals Ltd., another company based in Australia.

Since production commenced at the Touquoy Mine, 400,000 ounces of gold has been produced.

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