How, then, to reconcile the uncomfortable realities of modern mining with those of climate change, environmental integrity and the rights of Canadians to health and natural beauty? It’s a messy maze at best, but Jamie Kneen of MiningWatch Canada, a coalition of sorts concerned with the shortcomings of Canadian mining nationally and abroad, had plenty to say.
Nova Scotia is in the early stages of a self-proclaimed “gold rush,” encouraging industrial investment in open pit mines which will inevitably be built overtop old mining projects repeatedly dug and abandoned since the 1860s, their chemical consequences replete and discussed in last week’s column. In short, the modern mines proposed in Nova Scotia will come with the dangers of arsenic, mercury and sometimes cyanide in their tailings.
Regardless of the quality of these mines and accompanying regulations, they represent a genuine danger to Nova Scotian ecology given their use and manufacture of toxic substances on site, especially in the case of Cochrane Hill, built overtop the St Mary’s River and decades of dedicated conservation, restoration and protection work. Regardless of what’s being mined, it’s fair to call these risks unacceptable, said Jamie, but that goes double for gold.
As he described it, only about 10-15 per cent of gold mined globally goes to any practical use, chiefly in electronics. The rest is pulled from the ground and promptly locked in bank vaults where it remains. Historically, the currencies of many nations were tied to gold and was valued in relation to it. That’s no longer the case, but the practice of preserving one’s financial assets in gold continues, an obsolete agreement between wealthy banks and individuals that this conductive metal has some abstract monetary value, and can therefore be bought and sold regardless of the state of one’s economy. The marketplace can collapse, the fortunes of the rich could disappear, but their gold would remain.
I can’t help but think the same could be accomplished by certifying so many bags of sand as having sturdy market value, or perhaps by paining granite yellow and shoving it in a vault somewhere, but instead we use gold, causing companies across the planet to scar landscapes with open pit mines and extract arbitrary fortunes in the form of a metal which will come to no practical use. By supporting such mines, we’re party to absurdity.
Gold, Jamie said, is a metal with enormous recycling potential. Not only does it recycle easily, it recycles cleanly, unlike lead which takes more than a few nasty processes to revive and reuse. The amount of gold presently at play in the electronics of the world could be recycled to meet global demand for a century or more, he said, and if the vaulted masses of gold inflated with artificial value were added to the equation, we might never need to mine gold again.
Our search for gold, while strictly profitable, makes no sense. There is no justification for it, no benefit to the human enterprise, no greater good to offset whatever environmental fallout might result. It’s not unlike the global demand for rhino horn, driving several species to gruesome extinction so as to steal and snort a substance which has value only in the minds of people buying it. Money, in either case, should not be its own moral justification, especially when it comes at the expense of the St Mary’s River and its resurging Atlantic salmon.
Last week we heard from Michael Parsons in this column very, with his informed perspective on mining in Canada generally. He suggested that mining for other substances, such as cobalt and copper, was considerably more justifiable than gold because they support our national transition to a renewable economy, that this transition would require more mining not less, that we need to prioritize sustainability and safety when permitting these other mines, and that it’s better they’re dug here, under the cloud of Canadian regulations than in countries with flimsy environmental laws. While this is a compelling point of view, Jamie’s differs in some important ways.
While he agrees mining for certain renewable energy metals – in the case of Canada these are cobalt, copper, nickel and silver – can be considered justified, even necessary, he said it’s extremely important we don’t simply shift existing and rising energy demands, and our demands for vehicles and highways, onto renewables. It’s critical, he said, that we reduce our overall use of energy and get cars off the road, in particular by way of enhanced public transit and energy efficiency.
The majority of Canadians live in cities which, if properly conformed, can do away with enormous numbers of vehicles and shed a great deal of its energy demand. Once we’ve come to grips with the amount of energy we actually need, said Jamie, then we can grapple with how much mining is genuinely necessary in Canada for residential battery storage, electric cars and wind turbines. Giving the mining industry a free pass and a blank cheque, in short, or calling them necessary, could do enormous harm, he said, and for very little public good. We need an informed and intelligent national strategy, not a free-for-all.
Mining, he said, cannot be called sustainable, because the metals in question are finite and the toxins they contain in tailings are permanent. Arsenic, as mentioned in last week’s column, doesn’t break down. These facilities will leak over the decades regardless of how well they’re built, and in some form or another will need to be monitored forever. This is not a responsibility we can accept lightly, he said. Such leaks and maintenance can end up costing more than the value of the original mine, such as in Colorado where huge numbers of historic tailings are causing all manner of contamination, and in the Yukon where the costs and consequences of old mining wastes are nightmarish. At many sites cleanup isn’t an option, merely perpetual containment.
It’s very easy to have a mine approved in Canada, said Jamie. Very few are turned down following the environmental review process, most instead falling to a lack of economic viability. This needs to change, he said, shackling potential projects with stricter environmental hurdles and, above all else, the prior and informed consent of landowners and communities. Canada has a very poor record in this arena.
The regulations in place for Canadian mines are alright, said Jamie, but there are gaps, such as when and where effluent waters are measured to determine their compliance with provincial and federal regulations – at the pipe or a kilometre down stream. As well, these regulations are poorly enforced, he said, relying on self monitoring more than is ideal, and in the history of Canada’s Fisheries Act, there are frighteningly few prosecutions for mining violations. More often than not, said Jamie, failure to comply with federal regulations, such as effluent standards, is met with a strongly worded letter instead of litigation.
At one time it was possible for private organizations and citizens to prosecute companies under the Fisheries Act themselves. Such “private prosecutions,” however, haven’t had much success since the 1990s, said Jamie, since the federal government adopted the policy of taking these prosecutions over (which is their right) and shelving them indefinitely. This is exactly what happened when MiningWatch Canada attempted a private prosecution of those responsible for the Mount Polley Mine Disaster of 2014.
So, the proposed gold mines of Nova Scotia have no genuine value, will produce effluent during and after its operation, will leave the watershed with the risks inherent to tailings forever, and if something goes wrong, locals should be prepared to live with the consequences, as prosecution from any level of government, and the responsibility of industry in cleaning it up, is far from guaranteed. Some Canadian mines can perhaps be justified under stricter circumstances and with greater regulatory zeal, but not those of Nova Scotia, certainly not for gold.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.
Shown above is the St. Mary’s River. (Irwin Barrett photo)