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Nova Scotia, open for gold diggers

Bureaucrats act as project cheerleaders, former MLA charges

by Robert Devet

Test pit at the DDV Gold property in Moose River Gold Mines on the Eastern Shore.  Critics charge that in Nova Scotia mining interests take precedence over any concerns Nova Scotians may have. Photo by Dan Hutt, all rights reserved
Test pit at the DDV Gold property in Moose River Gold Mines on the Eastern Shore. Critics charge that in Nova Scotia mining interests take precedence over any concerns Nova Scotians may have. Photo by Dan Hutt, all rights reserved

K'JIPUKTUK, HALIFAX -  When DDV Gold Ltd. announced its intention to develop an open pit gold mine at Moose River Gold Mines in the Musquodoboit Valley, politicians and bureaucrats went out of their way to make it happen.

Too far out of their way, critics believe. They argue that legislation and biased attitudes in government converge to give mining, oil and gas, and even pipeline projects an advantage that is not warranted.

What happened at Moose River Gold Mines is a case in point, they say.

When the owner of a local christmas tree farm refused to sell land to DDV Gold Ltd., Charlie Parker, at that time the NDP Minister of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), issued a seldom-used vesting order to expropriate the land on behalf of the Australian-owned company.

Gary Burrill, the former NDP MLA for the area, publicly made the case that such an expropriation was very much a mistake.

Ususally MLAs do not pick a fight with their government. At least not in public.

"In politics to separate yourself from the view of your party is a very serious thing to do," Burrill tells the Halifax Media Co-op, "and in the four years that I was a MLA there were only two issues that I felt that strongly about. One was the Convention Centre, and the other was this expropriation."

"Expropriation is almost never used in this form, it is extremely rare, and I thought that the rationale for this project did not justify it, " says Burrill.

"I am afraid that our government complied with this request out of a kind of fear that we would become viewed by the investment world as an inadequately welcoming jurisdiction if we didn't, but this is a poor reason."

The three-hectares parcel of land that was being expropriated was owned by Higgins Family Christmas Trees. The family had owned the lands for over 120 years, and simply wasn't interested in selling.

Ususally expropriations occur on behalf of government, to serve the public good, to facilitate things like highways or hospitals. Expropriations rarely occur on behalf of privately owned companies.

But when your company is into mining, drilling for oil or gas, or pipeline development you are in luck. Legislation permits government to expropriate land on your behalf.

Cleve Higgins became the unofficial spokesperson for the family while the expropriation was underway.

"In our case mining was prioitized over everything else," Higgins tells the Halifax Media Co-op. "Over what we were doing there, and what anybody else would be doing anywhere. It is a real disregard for any other use of land or value of land that people may entertain."

In a press release quoted in the Chronicle Herald Minister Charlie Parker justified the expropriation by the jobs the project would create.

DDV Gold has promised as many as 300 jobs during construction of the mine site, planned to start in late 2015, and 150 jobs during the five to seven years it is estimated the mine will be in operation.

That's a lot of jobs for rural Nova Scotia, even if it is only for a relatively short time.

But that doesn't make it right, Burrill argues.

"It's as if I were to propose a project for a hotel development on the corner of Prince and Barrington, and I have a study that shows it will generate jobs for 300 people. The only problem is that I don't own any property on the corner of Prince and George," says Burrill.

"I can't just ask government to acquire that property for me. That of course would be unthinkable. But that's exactly what happened in this case."

"The open pit mine is not a public benefit project, it's a project for private profit which will have some public benefits. That is an entirely different thing," says Burrill.

Burrill emphasizes that he is not opposed to the mine in principle. And he leaves no doubt that the large majority of people who live here very much want to see the mine developed.

But Burrill wants to see proper environmental safeguards in place. To establish a for Canada precedent-setting open pit gold mine requires an absolutely air tight regulatory regime, he says.

Such a rigorous regime can only be established from a position of strength, says Burril, and for the provincial government to issue the vesting order to expropriate sent the wrong message.

"It meant that the government was in effect placing itself in a position of a servile project cheerleader," Burrill says.

Which is exactly what should not happen, Burrill argues, especially given the bad environmental record of many open pit mining projects especially in developing countries.

The Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association, a local environmentalist organization, has been vocal in its opposition to the mine development. It believes that the environmental risks are substantial, and that the proposed safeguards are insufficient.

"When they extract the gold from this large amount of ore it releases arsenic and also copper and other minerals into the water supply," says Jim Turner, a member of the group, in an interview.

"Monitoring for problems should be continuous and not done by employees of the mine," says Patricia Egli, another member of the group. "If something were to go wrong, say a tailing pond leak were to occur, the entire watershed could be poisoned."

Or the company could go under, Egli says. After all, gold exploration is a highly speculative and volatile business.

In either case Nova Scotia would be stuck with both the damage and the clean-up bill, the association argues.

This is why the group asked that DDV Gold be required to post a bond for restoration and reclamation that was substantially higher than the $2-million DNR had negotiated.

Here Burrill agrees. As a MLA he lobbied DNR to establish a performance bond for DDV Gold that was truly sufficient to cover potential harms.

"But I lost the election before that came to a conclusion," Burrill says.

And that was the end of that idea.

"A lot of these things come down to a joint interest between the mining companies and the Mineral Resources Branch at DNR, it's as if they are all on the same team," says Higgins."The entire existence of that mining division is based on mining projects going ahead."

"When there are issues that could cause problems for the project, like a request that lot of money should be set aside for environmental cleanup, then they will downplay that and take the company's side."

See also:

Drilling for oil off the coast of Nova Scotia

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert



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