Province faces 'conundrum' of mine contamination on private property

The tailings at the historical Montague gold mine are contaminated with arsenic and mercury, among other materials. (Frances Willick/CBC - image credit)
The tailings at the historical Montague gold mine are contaminated with arsenic and mercury, among other materials. (Frances Willick/CBC - image credit)

The Nova Scotia government has not notified some landowners of potential contamination on their properties from historical gold mines, despite being required to do so by provincial regulations.

Gold mines that operated in Nova Scotia dating back to the 1800s left a legacy of contamination, most notably from arsenic and mercury.

In many cases, the original source of the contamination is on one property, but the material flowed — often through water — to surrounding properties over time.

The government has committed to cleaning up contamination on Crown lands only, but is required under the Environment Act's contaminated sites regulations to immediately notify "the owner or occupant of any parcel of land to which contaminants have migrated or are likely to migrate from the contaminated site."

In at least some cases, that hasn't been done.

The issue of third-party notification is a thorny one for government, which is grappling with questions about liability and responsibility for remediation. It's also a potentially worrisome issue for property owners, who could be affected by cleanup requirements on or near their land.

Lack of information

Anita Baltas has lived on Montague Mines Road near Waverley, N.S., for 48 years.

Her property borders the Crown parcel that contains a significant quantity of contaminated tailings from the historical Montague gold mine, one of the two most contaminated former mine sites in the province, along with Goldenville near Sherbrooke.

She said although there are signs posted up and down her road warning of danger, she's never received information from the province about what the danger is.

"We don't even understand what these signs are all about. Yeah, we can see it's not good, but we don't really know why it's not good and what are they going to do to fix it," she said. "I think they should tell us what we should be doing."

Brian MacKay/CBC
Brian MacKay/CBC

Baltas said when her kids were younger, they played on their bikes in the nearby "sand flats" — what she now knows is contaminated mine tailings, the material left over after the gold is extracted from the ore. She said people still ride motorbikes in the tailings most weekends.

"Do the parents realize it's not safe? I didn't know it wasn't safe when my kids went down there."

For most of her nearly five decades living on Montague Mines Road, Baltas lived in one house, but when she and her husband built a new house across the road eight years ago, they had to drill a new well.

A water test found the arsenic levels vastly exceeded the acceptable limit, which was 10 micrograms per litre. Their water had 376 micrograms of arsenic per litre — "unreal" levels, according to Baltas.

Brian MacKay/CBC
Brian MacKay/CBC

Baltas had a top-of-the-line filtration system installed, and said when she called the company recently to arrange maintenance, they told her the same system today would cost about $10,000.

"How many people have that kind of money? Does the government realize it's costing us that much money?"

She said she's worried about people who live nearby and drink the water and don't know they should be testing it.

High arsenic level

There are 68 potentially contaminated former mine sites on the provincial government's cleanup list, and Montague and Goldenville are at the top of that list. The estimated cleanup cost for the two sites was last set at $60 million, but is expected to rise further.

Nova Scotia Lands, the province's environmental cleanup agency, is conducting human health risk assessments for the Montague and Goldenville sites.

An assessment for Barrys Run, which is downstream from the Montague site, found that the risk of negative health consequences from arsenic during activities such as swimming or consuming fish caught there is low. However, residents have been warned not to partake in those activities.

In drinking water, high concentrations of arsenic over a short period of time can cause sickness such as nausea and diarrhea, and over the long term, exposure can cause cancer.

Brian MacKay/CBC
Brian MacKay/CBC

A December 2021 study of Montague obtained recently by CBC News through a freedom-of-information request showed that recent sampling found the highest concentration of arsenic in the soil was 18,000 milligrams per kilogram, and the average was 1,075 mg/kg. Nova Scotia's guidelines for soil for agricultural use call for no more than 17 mg/kg, and no more than 31 mg/kg for residential use.

In groundwater at the site, arsenic was found in concentrations up to 90 milligrams per litre. The provincial standard is 10 mg/l.

Responsibility dependent on circumstances

The report only assessed Crown property at the site, not private land. But maps included in the report show where tailings may have spread onto several parcels of private property. Similarly, a 2019 report on Goldenville outlines where tailings areas abut property lines of private landowners.

A spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables said in a statement that the department is "working to understand the full scope of contamination issues on Crown lands first."

"We have and will continue to engage with third parties as we continue our work to assess and address potential contamination."

Donnie Burke, the executive director of environmental assessment and remediation at Nova Scotia Lands, told CBC News in late June that the government hasn't done third-party engagement yet because it's still trying to determine what the liability for government is.

"You know, is it the taxpayer's responsibility or the property owner's responsibility? So there are all the conundrums that we're faced with," said Burke.

Nova Scotia Lands declined a more recent interview about third-party notification and who would bear responsibility for cleaning up contamination from old gold mines. A statement from a spokesperson simply noted that in some cases, the source of the contamination is on Crown land, and in others it is on private land but affects Crown land.

Frances Willick/CBC
Frances Willick/CBC

In a separate statement from Nova Scotia Environment, a spokesperson said the determination of responsibility for managing contamination depends on the circumstances and evidence at each site, and that the Environment Act "provides for a range of persons responsible."

The statement said if someone believes their property may be contaminated, they should contact an environmental consulting company or the Environment Department, which can help the property owner determine what needs to be done next.

'Nobody told us what to do'

Some of the private properties that may be contaminated belong to individuals, while others are owned by corporations.

Mike Yari is the president of Pinnacle Properties, a developer that hopes to build 400 units of housing on land nestled between Montague Road and the Forest Hills extension of Highway 107. Part of the 46-hectare property is likely contaminated, but Yari said any construction would take place on a different part that is not contaminated.

He said he's paid for a consultant's study that proved the original source of the contamination is not on his land. But when he asks the province who will be responsible for cleaning it up, he doesn't get answers.

"We don't know — that's the truth. Nobody told us what to do and nobody is really talking to us yet," he said. "They said we are working on it, but working on it for a long time. There's nothing happening."

Frances Willick/CBC
Frances Willick/CBC

CBC News contacted Clayton Developments, another company that hopes to develop land affected by tailings near Montague, but no one responded.

The Halifax Regional Water Commission, which owns two large parcels of land near Montague that likely have tailings traces, said monitoring wells were installed on its properties in 2019, and that any risk to water quality is low if the area is left undisturbed.

CBC News has spoken with two other private landowners — one near Montague and one near Goldenville — whose properties may be contaminated. Both said they have not been notified by the province about the issue.

While the maps don't indicate there are tailings on Baltas's property, she said she'd like more information from the government.

"Nobody's been knocking on my door telling us anything and I think that's a big concern for all of us," she said. "We don't know. That's the thing. We don't know anything."