Plans for Eastern Shore gold mine pushed back several years

·4 min read

Plans for a controversial open pit gold mine on Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore have been pushed back by several years amid uncertainty over its water supply.

Atlantic Gold intended to begin construction at its Cochrane Hill property next year and enter production in 2023. Now it says an environmental impact statement won't be ready until late 2024.

An investor presentation from parent company St Barbara Limited last month linked the new schedule to a decision by the provincial government last fall that left the project's water supply undetermined.

In October 2020, the province said it needed to further evaluate plans to declare 684 hectares in and around Archibald Lake as a protected wilderness area.

The designation would have denied the Atlantic Gold its planned water source.

The presentation contains a note on Cochrane Hill: "Decision in October 2020 on Archibald Lake defers any decision on conservation subject to outcome of [environmental impact statement] process."

'Salmon rivers and gold mines don't mix'

The delay at Cochrane Hill is being welcomed by opponents like Mike Crosby of the Nova Scotia Salmon Association.

"That's a good thing," he said. "However, I think it should be pushed off to eternity."

He and other critics say the mine's six-year production life and the jobs it will create are not worth the risk to the nearby St. Marys River. Millions of dollars have been spent in an effort to restore the river and bring back Atlantic salmon.

"The fact is salmon rivers and gold mines don't mix," he said.

"The mine is close enough that every model that's been built says that should a catastrophic event happen at a tailings pond … it would obliterate the whole river system," he said.

Company juggling other projects

Cochrane Hill is one of three proposed open pit "satellite mine" projects the company is juggling on the Eastern Shore. The others are Beaver Dam and Fifteen Mile Stream.

All are designed to supply gold ore to a central processing plant at Moose River where the company's Touquoy Mine is already up and running.

Dustin O'Leary, Atlantic Gold's Nova Scotia spokesperson, said the delay at Cochrane Hill, first reported in the Guysborough Journal, is connected to the permitting schedules for Beaver Dam and Fifteen Mile Stream.

"St Barbara Ltd remains committed to the Cochrane Hill Gold Mine project and the positive benefits it will deliver to our province's Eastern Shore," O' Leary said in an email to CBC News.

What the company told investors

Craig Brownlie, Atlantic Gold general manager, updated investors on the schedule on Dec. 15.

"For Cochrane Hill, the time horizon appears to be a little longer. But the focus will be on getting Beaver Dam and Fifteen Mile Stream approved and into production, then focusing Atlantic Operation's efforts on advancing the Cochrane Hill project as seamlessly as possible." he said according to a transcript.

Brownlie said the company wants Beaver Dam in production by mid-2023.

That also worries Crosby and Kris Hunter of the salmon federation.

Hunter said Beaver Dam is also near another ecologically sensitive area where millions of dollars have been spent to restore Atlantic salmon.

"Delay in the Cochrane Hill project we view as good news for now. It means the project's not going ahead right away. But we are concerned that it does mean that Beaver Dam is going to be moving forward. So this is sort of good news, I guess. But it's also bad news kind of as well, too," Hunter told CBC News.

Mine says its committed to the environment

O'Leary said the company is taking into account community concerns, including those surrounding St. Marys River.

"Our operations respect the local environment and aim to coexist with all local water bodies. The proposed mine plan takes into account environmental considerations and regulations, as well as community input and social objectives," he said.

Atlantic Gold says Cochrane Hill will employ 202 people when in production. It would extract two million tonnes of gold-bearing ore per year.

The mine waste tailings pond will be contained with an embankment 70 metres high.

The company said it will need between 300,000 and 500,000 cubic metres of water initially and then 50 cubic metres a day during production.