Skip to main content

Nova Scotia's modern 'gold rush' poses huge risk to climate, expert warns

Nova Scotia is embarking on what many are calling its fourth gold rush -- but instead of panning for chunks of gold, mining operations in the province today consist of massive tailings ponds, enormous open pits extracting small traces of gold and a climate toll that one expert says we’re not properly tracking.

Alana Westwood, assistant professor at the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University, says Nova Scotia’s regulations are woefully behind the times and nowhere near able to keep up with the explosion of new mining claims.

“This is happening across Canada, but Nova Scotia is starting to shape up as a bit of a flashpoint for a national conversation,” she told CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday.

And some experts say the little-understood long-term impacts of contamination from gold mining in Nova Scotia coupled with a new gold rush may be creating a problem of an unknown scale.

There have been three gold rushes in Nova Scotia’s history: one in the early 1800s, another in the early 1900s, and the most recent in 1942.

Those early miners would never be able to comprehend the scale of mining operations today, Westwood said.

“(They) were using pickaxes, working underground, (in) quite small mines overall,” she said adding when it comes to modern mines, “We’re looking at what’s now really low quality ore. So about one gram per ton of rock, so that’s like a paper clip of gold for every Volkswagen Beetle of rock that you’re mining out of the ground today.”

In 2013, there were 158 mining exploration licenses active in Nova Scotia, covering just 1.5 per cent of Nova Scotia’s total surface, according to Westwood’s research.

A map of the province in 2013 shows only two mines either completed or in progress: the Touquoy Gold Mine and the Donkin Coking Coal Mine.

Just 10 years later, the same map looks vastly different.

There are more than 2,000 licenses, covering nearly a fifth of the province’s total land mass. In some regions of Nova Scotia, up to 50 per cent of the land mass is covered by mining exploration licenses. There are four completed mines, two of which are gold mines, with two other gold mines in progress. In 2022, the Touquoy gold mine received approval to increase the capacity of its massive tailings pond by raising the height of its wall by 2.5 metres and extending gold production at the mine site until December 2024.


One of the big issues with the explosion in gold mining within Nova Scotia is that regulations haven’t kept pace, Westwood says.

While the federal government introduced new environmental assessment regulations in 2019, broadening the scope of impact assessments for new projects to ensure that companies took climate change into account, among other changes, most mining projects in Nova Scotia go through provincial assessments, Westwood said.

“There are new federal impact assessment laws — these are meant to allow us to look at the predicted impacts of a project on human health, on the environment, on communities, and then make a decision on whether or not to proceed with that project,” she explained. “Nova Scotia’s laws are outdated at this point.”

The province’s environmental regulations were created in 1995, and don’t legally require companies to consider climate change or impacts on Indigenous peoples and nearby communities, Westwood said.

Nova Scotia’s Environment Act does specify that when an application for a project is being assessed for approval, the Minister will consider “concerns expressed by the public and aboriginal people about the adverse effects or the environmental effects of the proposed undertaking,” as well as “steps taken by the proponent” to address these concerns, but doesn’t include any reference to climate change at the moment.

That’s something that’s due to change soon: in 2021, Nova Scotia passed the Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act, which includes a commitment to modernize the environmental assessment process by 2024.

A progress report in 2022 stated that they are aiming to create a regulatory environment that “considers Netukulimk, diversity, equity and inclusion and climate change,” and that the Department will be ready to receive public feedback on proposed changes by July 2023.

“There is a promise from the government to update them much more fulsomely, but we haven’t seen that materialize yet,” Westwood said.

“Meanwhile … there’s this huge increase in the number of claims being staked, and that is going to lead to more mines being proposed. There’s already more mines going through the impact assessment process than have been in years.”

Creating regulations for resource extraction in Canada is a difficult process, as lawmakers seek to balance economic concerns with environmental ones.

Over the last 25 years, all of Canada’s mineral reserves have been declining in production except for gold, according to a 2023 report from the Mining Association of Canada, with gold production worth more than 13 billion in 2021, compared to 5.7 billion in 2012.

The federal regulations have been under scrutiny since the Impact Assessment Act (IAA) was put in place in 2019. In March, the Supreme Court held a hearing on the constitutionality of the IAA, following an Alberta Court of Appeal decision in May 2022 that found the IAA was a federal overreach. Those who oppose the new regulations view them as an unnecessary limitation on resource development that will slow the economy.

According to materials from Nova Scotia’s department of Environment and Climate Change, after a company has registered a project proposal for environmental assessment, the government will open Crown consultation with the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia and seek public input to aid with the Minister’s decision. Some decisions end in a request for more specific info from the company, or for environmental reports to be completed to address larger missing gaps of information.

But Westwood said the current setup of Nova Scotia’s regulations don’t provide the ability to look properly at cumulative impacts of mining projects — something that was highlighted in the Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act as an aspect of the assessment process that needs updating.

“Not just looking at one project, but looking at what happens if you have one mine and then you open another mine, and then you add other kinds of development in and around that,” she said.

“We’re already dealing with the legacy of pollution from the much smaller footprint gold mines we did have.”


The scale of environmental contamination that occurred in Nova Scotia’s first three gold rushes — and how much is still affecting the environment and communities today — is little understood.

A 2019 review found the topic is woefully under-researched, but that even the scant data we do have indicates that mercury and arsenic from abandoned gold mining sites can still be found in high levels in plants, fungi, fish and mammals.

“We have arsenic and mercury pollution still leaching from 100 (year) old gold mines, into our waterways, into our fish, we have methyl mercury above toxic levels from this pollution,” Westwood said.

“So I’m a little nervous that we’re going to end up with not just more of the same, but a lot more of the same if we don’t have better oversight and better engagement for communities to say, ‘okay, this is the development I want in my community, but there need to be safeguards,’ or, to say no to that development if they don’t want it in their community.”

Between the mid-1800s and 1950, there were more than 350 gold mines operating in Nova Scotia. A 2021 study looking at sediments in an urban lake, Lake Charles, which is located near a historical gold mining operation in Nova Scotia, found arsenic levels were 300 times above levels known to be toxic to living creatures.

One of the arguments responding to climate-based critiques of gold mining is that the precious metal is used extensively in circuitry and electronics, potentially aiding in shifts towards more electricity-based technology.

But that represents a fraction of the business, Westwood said.

“Only a small proportion goes into technology uses — about half is jewelry,” she said. “And then the remaining proportion mostly goes into investment. Corporations, governments, holding gold as a security, as currency. So very little of it is actually going towards these technological uses, or sort of the green transition.”

Pollutants and tailings waste from gold mines leaching into the ground or water isn’t an issue relegated purely to these historical mines.

In 2014, a tailings dam collapsed at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in British Columbia, releasing more than 20 million cubic metres of mining wastewater.

A report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation released in early May found that mining produces more pollutants than any other industry in North America, with an Ontario gold mine topping the list for Canada for most pollutants likely to impact human health.

Atlantic Mining NS Inc., an Australian gold mining company that operates the Touquoy gold mine, was fined $250,000 in February 2022 after pleading guilty to violating federal and provincial laws by depositing damaging substances into water near the gold mine. Atlantic Mining NS Inc. is a subsidiary of St Barbara Limited and is known also as Atlantic Gold Corp.

The government’s impact assessment registry, which lists information on potential and current projects within Canada, lists two upcoming Nova Scotia projects from Atlantic Mining NS Inc. as “in progress,” while a third, Cochrane Hill Gold Project, was terminated in August 2022 due to the company failing to provide required information for environmental assessment within the time limit.

All three projects, including a proposed open pit gold mine in Marinette, Nova Scotia called the Beaver Dam Mine Project, and an open pit gold mine 95 kilometres northeast of Halifax called the Fifteen Mile Stream Gold Project, have sparked controversy.

Environmentalists called for the halting of the Cochrane Hill project in 2020 after a video showed wild Atlantic salmon preparing to spawn in a river near the proposed project.

The company has previously stated that the environment is an important consideration in its projects.

“Part of St Barbara's corporate commitments is to safety always, and respecting the environment,” the parent company said in a 2022 email statement to CTV News Atlantic in response to concerns about the Touquoy tailings pond being expanded. “Our company will continue to work with all parties to ensure we are living up to these commitments in the communities where we operate, now and into the future." 


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that gold production was worth 13 million in 2021 and 5.7 million in 2012, as opposed to billions. 

This story has been updated to include more detail surrounding proposed updates to Nova Scotia`s environmental assessment process. Top Stories

Stay Connected