The Environment Department is conducting tests on samples collected around the tailings pond at Atlantic Gold's Moose River, N.S., gold mine after environmental groups raised the alarm about what they believed was a leak at the facility over the weekend.
Photos of the tailings management facility — where materials left over after ore has been processed are deposited — show a rust-coloured substance on both sides of the rock wall surrounding the pond and a pump outside the wall.
Scott Beaver is the president of the Saint Mary's River Association and the founder of No Open Pit Excavation, an environmental group that opposes the development and operation of gold mines in Nova Scotia.
He posted the images on social media after receiving them from the pilot of a private aircraft who shot the photos on Friday.
Beaver said he believes the photos show a leak in the tailings wall.
But the company says there was no leak, that the tailings pond is functioning as it should and is in compliance with regulatory requirements.
Atlantic Gold spokesperson Dustin O'Leary said Monday in an emailed statement that the discoloured substance is naturally occurring in the surface water and is due to ground conditions in the area.
The company is required to collect surface water such as rain that falls on site, and that water is channelled into the pond, he said. A pump is visible in the photo, and is pumping the surface water into the facility, the company said.
"We have had third-party experts review this and there is nothing that would cause harm to the environment around the mine site as the containment system is working exactly as it should."
O'Leary said the tailings management facility is inspected daily.
"It was most recently inspected last evening as part of our daily inspection regime, with no leaks or breaches of any nature," he said Monday.
Samples to be analyzed
The provincial Environment Department sent a staff member to the tailings facility on Monday and found no evidence that material was discharged to the environment, a spokesperson said by email Monday night.
"Discoloured liquid was found in the seepage containment pool and was being pumped back into the main tailings management facility, which is how the facility was designed to operate."
The Environment Department staff member took several samples around the pond for analysis, which is expected to take about two weeks.
Company's explanation 'credible,' says mining professor
Scott Dunbar, a professor and the head of the Department of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia, said the company's explanation is "credible."
He said sulfide minerals such as pyrite, also called fool's gold, are common in the ground around gold mines.
"It will decompose and form rust, basically, and that's probably what's happening there."
Dunbar said if there was a leak in the pond, there would likely be a slump or disturbance in the rock wall, which he didn't spot in the photos.
"Based on what I see here, I don't see something happening underneath that dam."
He did say, however, that sulfide minerals can cause acid rock drainage. Acid rock drainage can cause environmental damage.
Atlantic Gold, owned by Australia-based company St Barbara, is currently working on plans to develop three other gold mines in Nova Scotia.
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