There are barely a dozen homes at Cape Spencer on the Bay of Fundy coast. But people here are not surprised when strangers quietly appear in their community about 25 minutes from downtown Saint John.
The arrivals are often preceded by an upward trend in gold prices.
"We've always had people looking for gold out here," said Kimberly Burry, whose home sits atop a hill looking out toward the ocean.
The latest newcomers, a small crew of geologists, caused barely a ripple this fall when they took up residence in a rented house and began their daily trips into the woods to explore the many rock outcrops and other geological features.
If they find what they're looking for, they'll want to take care to reassure neighbours a new mine will not be like the old mine, which left a legacy of environmental ruin when it closed more than thirty years ago.
Gold prices have climbed steadily since September, 2018 and, as of last week, sat at $2400 an ounce, close to a nine year high.
'The region's becoming hot'
These particular newcomers work for Magna Terra Minerals, a junior mining company based in Toronto whose stock was trading at 24 cents on Friday.
That doesn't diminish the optimism of company president, Lewis Lawrick.
"The region's becoming hot," said Lawrick, who claims there is evidence of gold throughout a fault known as the Avalon Terrane that extends from Newfoundland, through northern Nova Scotia, southern New Brunswick and on down the New England coast.
"It's probably one of the most unloved and under explored and misunderstood mineralized gold belts in North America," he said. "And it's starting to gain a lot of interest within the geological community."
Magna Terra has obtained mineral rights for more than 5000 hectares extending almost ten kilometres along the Fundy coast and inland two to four kilometres.
Included is the site of the former Gordex Minerals gold mine that closed in 1988 leaving a legacy of lost investments and environmental desecration.
Clean-up & restoration attempts 'feeble'
Gordex opened with much fanfare in 1986, 30 years after its founder, Morton Gordon, a young hobbyist prospector, discovered gold while exploring with a simple rock pick.
He later staked claims and raised more than a million dollars to mine the low-grade ore using a then new method, called heap leaching to draw out the gold.
Heap leaching involved spraying a diluted calcium cyanide over the crushed rock. The solution leaches down, melting the gold from the rock as it passes through.
It worked fairly well as a method for extracting gold, but set off alarms when it came to the environment.
When Environment Canada learned runoff from the site was making its way into a nearby stream just a few hundred meters from the ocean, they ran a water quality test.
All the rainbow trout used in the test died within 60 hours.
Changes were made and later tests showed the water to be clean, but contaminated barrels remained onsite for years after the mine closed. And three decades later, a beautiful coastal landscape remains badly scarred.
Neighbour Stephen Mitchell, whose family now owns part of the mine site, said large areas were cleared and excavated for the mine, roads were built with little regard for property owners.
He describes the cleanup and restoration effort mandated by the province afterward as 'feeble.'
"It will take nature hundreds of years to correct it," said Mitchell.
Lawrick said he's very much aware neighbours will be apprehensive about talk of a new mine.
"It left a pretty sour taste in people's mouths," he said. "And that's certainly not something we're intending to repeat."
Lawrick said his company is most interested in a formation dubbed 'Emilio's Zone', about three kilometres to the northeast of the Gordex mine site, and roughly the same distance from the nearest homes.
He's hoping to find higher grade gold that can be extracted by far more efficient means than were employed by Gordex Minerals.
Going back 150 years or so 'til now, there's never been a profitable gold mine - David Thompson, former Fundy Baykeeper
"I wouldn't anticipate that we would ever, in my wildest dreams, be looking at any sort of a bulk tonnage, heap leach operation in this part of the world."
Lawrick said it is too early to determine whether an open pit or underground mine would be used or whether there's enough gold in the area to justify any mining.
Even then, he said with permitting and other hurdles, it takes 10 to 15 years from the time a significant gold deposit is discovered to the opening of a mine.
Longtime environmentalist and former Fundy Baykeeper David Thompson was active in the fight to have the Gordex mine site cleaned up by the province in the early 1990's following the collapse of the venture.
He doubts heap leaching would be attempted here a second time, and he's skeptical a significant gold deposit will ever be found.
"Going back 150 years or so 'til now, there's never been a profitable gold mine," said Thompson. "I mean anywhere in southern New Brunswick or along the Fundy coast here."
Still a business case for gold
Prior to entering politics, former Saint John MP Paul Zed was Gordex Minerals' secretary treasurer and spokesperson.
He said millions of dollars worth of gold was poured at Cape Spencer. And at today's prices he believes there's still a business case for some kind of gold extraction in the Cape Spencer area.
Looking back, he said a lot of emphasis was placed on creating jobs rather than on creating an 'appropriate balance' when it came to the environment.
He said the operation had cleaned up its practices by the time it was forced out of business by falling gold prices.
Nonetheless the concerns raised by the facility's neighbours can be justified.
"I think they were valid," said Zed. "You know, to tear up a beautiful coastline without proper standards becomes, I think, a critical factor in any operation."