By Ryan King
Community News Reporter
WEST COAST – Developing modern industry requires a balance between economic and environmental sustainability. Gold mining operations have been taking off in recent years in Newfoundland, including the Matador gold mine in Isle aux Morts and the Marathon Gold mining operation at Valentine Lake.
One individual who believes this balance is not being struck is Glenn Wheeler, host of a podcast called Mi’kmaq Matters, which provides news, interviews, and explores issues relevant to the Mi’kmaq people. In addition to the podcast, Wheeler is also a journalist, lawyer, and Indigenous rights activist.
While he currently lives in Toronto, he was born in the Mi’kmaq community of York Harbour and keeps up to date on matters at home. He has kept an eye on NL mining operations, which he sees as out of balance for the environment and the needs of Indigenous people.
“I think generally people in the province, particularly on the island, aren’t aware about the extent of gold mine activity,” said Wheeler. “If things continue, if the price of gold stays up and they keep claiming these deposits, the whole interior of the island is going to be sort of dug up with open pit mines and other developments.”
He cited the Matador mine in Isle aux Morts, being built next to the shores of a scheduled salmon river, and the Marathon Gold mine poses similar concerns.
“Gold mining uses a lot of some of the most dangerous chemicals there are: cyanide, arsenic,” said Wheeler. “Even though there are procedures for dealing with the effluence, the water that goes back into the river after its so-called cleaning, I think it’s not water that you and I would want to drink, and nor will the salmon probably. So it’s a very sensitive area where Matador is building. And this is true of Valentine Lake also.”
Wheeler acknowledged the need for jobs in the province, but does not believe they should come at the cost of the environment.
“The Matador project is estimated six years. So, six years of work, but then the river might be gone, and what about the value of tourism, outfitting, all those things that would keep on providing jobs forever, if managed properly.”
Then there is the caribou migration that goes through the area of the Marathon Gold project.
“It is now going through an environmental assessment. But even before the results of the Environmental Assessment were in, Qalipu was entering into a socio-economic agreement with Marathon Gold, even though Marathon admits that the impact on caribou in that area is considerable because the development of that gold mine is in the middle of the caribou migratory routes. And caribou, they’re quite sensitive animals, so if their if their patterns are disrupted it’s very destructive to their health and their ability to reproduce. And already caribou are a species of concern on the island of Newfoundland. So even with what was known about the impact on caribou, the fact that it’s at the height of land which the watershed for the Exploits river, the most important Salmon River Newfoundland, is located in this gold mine development.”
Despite these factors, the agreement went ahead.
“Qalipu entered into a socio-economic agreement, which it basically provides social license for Marathon. It tells the public that it must be okay if Qalipu is supporting Marathon on this project. Ironically, the word Qalipu is the Mi’kmaq word for caribou. So the band is named after the caribou, and the band is aiding and abetting a project that is potentially quite catastrophic to the poor caribou herds that use that area as a migratory route.”
Wheeler believes it becomes a question of balance and the long-term effects of the industry.
“It’s helping Qalipu encourage members of the band to go to Stephenville and get their heavy equipment certification, so they can work on this project – the Marathon project. And it’s estimated that there’ll be 400 jobs. Most of the jobs there are going to be heavy equipment jobs, about 400 at peak activity – 400 jobs for – estimates are 12 to 13 years of production. So what is the price? What is the value of future generations being able to enjoy that area? For Mi’kmaq people, land is the essence of the Mi’kmaq identity, connection to land, appreciation of land, protection of land.”
The Qalipu First Nations Council was contacted regarding these concerns but did not respond by publication deadline.
Keith Bowes is the project manager with Matador Mining.
“We continue to meet frequently with the Qalipu council, although we wouldn’t call them private as they are open in our opinion. Ian Murray has already met face-to-face with them a few times this year, now that face-to-face meetings are allowed, and our advisors are in regular contact with their team.”
Bowes added that they have not met with the council since the recent elections, but met with the representatives that attended the Stephenville community meetings. He stated that both the Qalipu and the Miawpukek First Nation, as well as regulators and local town communities, have raised concerns regarding the Isle aux Morts river. Other concerns have also been raised through specific comments and through documents like the Traditional Knowledge and Land Use Study.
“We recognize all of these as important issues and have implemented strategies and ensured our design plans mitigate this as much as is practical.”
These measures include cyanide destruction, process water containment, surface water infrastructure to manage run-off, effluent treatment plant, and ‘no-go’ areas along river back with a minimum 200 metre boundary in place.
“The environmental assessment (EA) process that we are undertaking in fact requires that we develop adequate mitigation strategies to protect the river before the project can be approved.”
Consultation is an ongoing process and will continue throughout the development, construction, operation, and closure of the mine.
“In the short term we plan to have meetings early next year with all communities to provide feedback on the final results from environmental assessment work and the potential impacts identified. The feedback from this consultation will be included in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Report submitted to the regulators. As part of the review process by the regulators, further engagement will take place to gather the communities’ views on the project which, if necessary, will be addressed in supplementary EIS submissions.”
While the company prefers face-to-face meetings, they have resorted to virtual meetings.
“We will continue to engage with the community using whatever methods/platforms are allowed, given the changing COVID-19 Pandemic landscape.”
Overall, Bowes believes the companies engagement with Indigenous groups has been successful.
“We believe we have worked hard since we acquired the project in 2018 in engaging with all communities and getting an understanding of their concerns which we have always considered in our approach and design work for the project. We believe our engagement work has been well received and to date we have not received any major push back that concerns us. We firmly believe that the responsible development of the Cape Ray Gold Project will benefit a wide range of stakeholders.”
Additionally, Bowes stated that he does not anticipate any delays in the current schedule to address these concerns.
Matthew Manson was appointed as the President, CEO, and Director of Marathon Gold in 2019. He acknowledged that the Buchans caribou herd travels through the eastern parts of the Valentine project in the spring and fall.
“Their transit through the property will be subject to a management plan that will look for any behavioral change in the Caribou’s migration because of the mining activities, and the management plan will have a series of prescribed mitigation strategies that will kick in if the monitoring shows any kind of behavioral changes during the project. So this was something that was identified in our environmental impact statement about a year and a half ago when we filed it, September 2020. And the completion of the plan that will govern this mitigation strategy is something that Marathon is kind of at the final short strokes for. As a plan, it’s being developed in concert with the wildlife division of fisheries forestry and agriculture of the provincial government.”
He said that the gold mining project has not fallen behind in addressing the issues surrounding the caribou migration.
“The environmental process generally, both at the provincial level and the federal level, is still ongoing. And the project doesn’t get started in terms of construction until we’re out of the environmental assessment process and we’ve received our permits. So the completion of the Caribou management plan is one element of the work which remains to be done on the environmental assessment process. I’d hate to say that the project has been delayed because of Caribou. It’s probably a bit of a generalization. I wouldn’t exactly say that. The project development schedule was subject to the successful completion of the EA, and the EA continues, and one of the elements within the EA is the completion of the Caribou management plan.”
Manson stated that engagement with the Qalipu First Nations Council have been thorough.
“That engagement session had been quite, quite deep, and it’s been going on for a while. We’ve actually signed an agreement with the Qalipu, a socio-economic agreement that was signed in May 2021, and that describes employment, contracting, environmental monitoring, with the Qalipu. How do we get Qalipu people employed by the mine? How do we get Qalipu businesses in providing goods and services, and how do we involve Qalipu in the environmental monitoring activities with the mine doing operations?”
The company also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Miawpukek in May 2021.
“That lays the framework for the development of the social and economic agreement with them. So the negotiation of that is ongoing and again, we base it on the same principles I’ve looking for mechanisms to get more Miawpukek members into employment, businesses, or environmental monitoring.”
Marathon Gold also has a joint environmental monitoring working group with the Qalipu and Miawpukek.
“That actually was initially created to look at oil and gas development, but we’re also still working with them and working in collaborative ways that we can get that kind of joint Miawpukek and Qalipu group involved in monitoring on our project.”
A traditional knowledge study is also being conducted with both Indigenous groups funded by Marathon.
“That involves Qalipu and Miawpukek members being on site, surveys of members, trying to get an understanding of cultural or archaeological community use of the land that the project is on.”
Regarding the environmental protections that Marathon is taking, Manson said that as with any mine in Canada, the focus is usually on water quality, fish habitat, and major fauna like caribou.
“The question you ask is a big question, and the environmental assessment itself is a two-to-three-year exercise in answering those questions and making sure that the protections are in place around impacting water, impacting fish habitat, impacting major fauna like Caribou, impacting also avifauna/birds. Making sure that we’re respectful of nesting season, we’re not disturbing nests at any of our site activities; wildlife crossings on roads; noise abatement; light abatement; at different seasons of the year, we’re respectful of the migratory patterns of wildlife.”
Manson said that this is what the company has been deeply involved with in the past two years, addressing anything that might be impactful and how it would be mitigated.
“I think what I would say in hindsight is that we don’t see at this stage any deleterious impact, whether it’s on water quality, fish, salmon, caribou. We don’t see any deleterious impact that can’t be successfully mitigated to everyone satisfaction. So we’re pretty comfortable we’re in a good place in terms of our environmental and social impact.”