Mining company’s green energy plan raises hopes, concerns

MOOSE RIVER — A proposal to turn a former Nova Scotia gold mine into a clean energy hub is prompting both support and scepticism from community advocates who say that, while the plan is hopeful, at least one of the player’s environmental track record does not inspire confidence.

Australian mining company St Barbara announced last week that its subsidiary, Atlantic Mining, has joined with Halifax-based environmental engineering company Natural Forces to conduct a feasibility study into turning its shuttered Touquoy gold mine near Sheet Harbour into a “renewable energy hub” that uses water flowing downhill from an elevated reservoir to generate electricity “combined with solar photovoltaic panels.”

According to a press release St Barbara/Atlantic Mining issued on June 6, “This approach to final land use at the Touquoy mine would establish a system pumping water from the open-pit lake up to a reservoir onsite for storage of water, ready for hydro energy generation on release of water back to the open-pit when required... It would ideally operate in conjunction with a solar system on site, ensuring clean and consistent energy for the province.”

In the release, Atlantic Mining Managing Director and CEO Andrew Strelein said the initiative reflects the company’s efforts to “deploy innovative solutions in all aspects of our operations, including closure... we have been looking at potential alternative land uses as we move into the mine reclamation phase.”

But, in an email to The Journal last week, Scott Beaver, president of the St. Mary’s River Association, based in Sherbrooke, expressed scepticism about Atlantic Mining’s involvement, stating: “I'm cautious about any proposed projects coming from St Barbara, especially if they throw the word ‘green’ in front of them. Let’s not forget about this company’s tainted not-so-distant past, [including] the many provincial and federal environmental fines.”

Karen McKendry, the senior wilderness outreach co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, also questioned Atlantic Mining’s participation, noting that the company was ordered to pay $250,000 in penalties after pleading guilty in 2022 to violating provisions of provincial and federal environment acts at its Touquoy mine.

Moreover, she told The Journal in an interview, “A big part of how the Mining Association of Nova Scotia tries to sell us on mining is, they say, ‘it’s a temporary use of the land and we clean it up and in some cases it’s even better than it was before. But we know that mines across Canada are sometimes in care and maintenance mode forever and they never really have to be cleaned up... Sometimes, the remediation of the mine falls to the government.

“I would want to believe that this [renewable energy hub] is in alignment with the reclamation plan. But we'll have to hear from government on that because nobody outside of the company and government gets to see the reclamation plan. [Still] they [Atlantic Mining] do have like a financial and moral responsibility to finish the site and reclaim it.”

In an email to The Journal, however, Andrew Taylor, vice-president of Atlantic Mining, insisted the feasibility “study partnership” with Natural Forces will not affect St Barbara’s “legal obligation” to reclaim the Touqouy mine site.

“Investigating final land use options is part of the reclamation process and entering into this feasibility study with Natural Forces will determine if this positive end land use is viable,” he said. “While the feasibility study is ongoing, St Barbara continues to move forward with activities to advance reclamation and meet regulatory requirements. Obviously, if the feasibility study delivers a positive outcome, discussions with provincial regulators and additional permitting will be required.”

According to Amy Pellerin – an environmental engineer and director of Canadian development at Natural Forces, an independent producer of 300 megawatts (MW) of operational renewable energy in Canada through community partnerships, the partnership with Atlantic Mining is a good fit right now.

“The evolution of the proposed feasibility study came about naturally between Natural Forces and Atlantic Mining,” she stated in an email. “As the mining operations at the Touquoy mine were winding down, Atlantic Mining was looking to understand different options for reclamation [and] the team began investigating the potential for repurposing the site in the fall of 2023... As Nova Scotia [moves] more renewable energy into its energy portfolio, there will be a need for storage to help integrate those resources as well as maintain grid stability.”

Regarding the proposed technology, she said: “A pump hydro project is a great energy storage solution, and one that is capable of repurposing existing mining infrastructure would have an additional added benefit... We will be primarily responsible for managing the consultants and technical studies necessary to produce the pump hydro feasibility study... We are optimistic about the future of the mining site as a hub for clean and consistent energy supply for the provincial grid.”

Said McKendry: “If they [Atlantic Mining] are getting out of the gold business, that’s great. If they’re getting into a new line of work, maybe we should be open to that.”

Added Beaver: “At this point it’s a very high-end proposal and we will need more information and the particulars surrounding the proposed project.”

Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal