Opinions are divided on Atlantic Gold’s plans for a potential gold mine at the Cochrane Hill site in the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s.
According to documentation outlining the results of a public consultation, some are worried the mine will wreck their property values and devastate the pristine ecosystem the many waterways in the region. Others are convinced that a gold mine will be a lifeline to an area that faces continual economic stagnation.
And in the middle, the staff and council of St. Mary’s are trying to figure out what is best for everyone.
That’s why St. Mary’s has hired an independent consultant to carry out an economic impact analysis for the potential mine, to find out what sort of things the mine will do for the local economy, and if digging up the gold in Cochrane Hill is worth the potential trouble.
“That work is underway for us now and we expect to have results from that by late May or June,” MacDonald said. “We’re looking more directly at the impacts to the municipality, as opposed to the bigger economic impact in the province.”
MacDonald noted that he and council are more interested in impacts that are more specific to St. Mary’s residents, such as mining activity’s effects on property values, and what sorts of employment opportunities will arise.
MacDonald explained that the district will take the results of its economic impact analysis and the environmental impact analysis that Atlantic Gold is conducting, to inform the decision- making process on a potential mine.
Atlantic Gold will be filing its assessment with the federal Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which has the final say on the outcome of the assessment. The company is looking to start construction, if it is approved, by 2021.
MacDonald admitted it is challenging, and will remain a challenge, for staff and council to decide one way or the other on the mine.
“It’s difficult for council to weigh all of that and come up with what they see as a position for the municipality,” he said, referring to the results of a public consultation documenting people’s many responses to a potential mine.
As far as support and rejection of the mine are concerned, MacDonald that although it would be difficult to determine if the majority of residents are pro-mine, or anti-mine, people who live closer to the Cochrane Hill site have expressed the most concerns about the environment and their property values.
“At public meetings, we have seemed to attract more people in the immediate vicinity who have concerns,” MacDonald said. “That doesn’t necessary provide a reflection of the whole municipality and, at this point, I wouldn’t want to venture a guess at what the number is.”
The municipality is “anxious to see what the environmental impact draft statement that comes out from Atlantic Gold’s work says,” MacDonald noted.
“It should be available sometime in June, so that will help feed into the decision-making process,” MacDonald said. “That pretty much covers what council will be looking at when they make a decision.”
MacDonald said the impact study is being conducted by a third party – a number of consultants hired by Atlantic Gold.
“The environmental impact statement will be hundreds of pages and will have many different components to it,” Macdonald said, noting it entails everything from Indigenous consultation to potential effects on animal habitats.
“The consultants will be working as a team to do the assessment for Atlantic Gold, answering questions from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency,” MacDonald said.
Scott Beaver, president of the St. Mary’s River Association, is concerned the environmental aspect is the purview of Atlantic Gold.
“It’s such a conflict of interest. Nova Scotia needs to create a committee that can evaluate places prior to anything going on with gold mines,” Beaver said. “Do I think it’s fair the gold mine pays for the environmental studies? Yeah, it’s good they page for it, but it’s still a conflict of interest.”
Beaver said he hopes any economic impact study will account for any damage to the St. Mary’s river ecosystem will harm the economy, because of how important the river is to it.
“It’s one of our region’s primary natural resources, and the St. Mary’s River Association is deeply concerned about Cochrane Hill being long-term damage done for short-term economic game,” Beaver said. “I think they should also create a natural disaster refund that companies like Atlantic Gold can pay into.”
Beaver reviewed the minimum requirements involved with the tender for the economic impact study and found “there are a lot of things missing there.”
“Hopefully, they’ll look at the impact of an environmental disaster, like if the tailings dam breaks,” Beaver said. “It’s going to have a huge economic impact on our region, there’s no doubt about that. I want to see long-term effects, like what acid mine drainage is going to look like for us.”
Another issue Beaver has with the process is that he sees it putting the burden mostly on the public to get things in order.
“We have such a short time frame to respond to all of this. We’re only given three weeks to a month to respond,” Beaver said.
This is particularly a pressing issue for the community, because they are undertaking their own investigation of the potential benefits and pitfalls posted by the mine.
“There are a few things we’re doing on our own,” Beaver said, noting a consultant has been hired to conduct a separate environmental impact study from the one Atlantic Gold coordinated. A researcher has also been hired to write a blog for the community outlining the risks of gold mining, and a wood turtle survey is also in the works.
“We’re also looking at our own baselines studies and tailings pond modelling,” Beaver said. “These are huge expenses and take our attention away from the river.”