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Nova Scotia grapples with financial risk of abandoned mines

N.S. government to assess contaminated water sites
WATCH: The provincial government says it’s taking a prioritized, risk-based approach to tackling the financial liability of contaminated mine sites. But as Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, a performance audit into the Department of Lands and Forestry’s handling of that file is already underway.

The Nova Scotia government says it’s moving forward with a prioritized, risk-based approach to tackling the financial liability of abandoned mine sites.

An unknown quantity of the aging properties may be contaminated and in need of cleanup — an economic hazard the Department of Lands and Forestry has done a poor job keeping track of, according to an October report from the auditor general.

As it stands, that department is co-ordinating with the Ministry of Energy and Mines to determine which sites require remediation under current environmental standards and has delegated additional staff to the assessment job.

“They are working on that process right now, looking at an initial phase of determination to see whether or not (action) is warranted,” Byron Rafuse, deputy minister of Finance and Treasury Board, told reporters on Wednesday.

“They look at the sites as they have the ability to do so based on the higher risk priorities.”

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READ MORE: Nova Scotia auditor general releases financial audit report

The government is currently working through a list of 69 sites on Crown land that may be in need of cleanup. Considerations include the severity of environmental and human health risk on-site, if any, the site’s current or future use, and its proximity to residential areas.

It has already identified 127 contaminated sites in total, 39 of which are likely to require environmental cleanup, or where cleanup is already underway.

As of 2018, the financial risk tied to those sites stood at $372 million, and in the future, it could rise even further, said Auditor General Michael Pickup.

“You could have more sites come on that exceed a standard that you have to do something with,” he explained. “Over time, as you refine your estimates — look at Boat Harbour. Five years ago? $20 million. Today? $230 million. Where that will end as further estimates become available? Who knows?”

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The financial liability from abandoned minds was the focus of a public accounts committee meeting on Wednesday, where Pickup and Rafuse fielded questions on work underway to address it, and why a performance audit has been ordered into the “control weaknesses” detected in Lands and Forestry’s handling of the issue.

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The results of that audit are due in the spring of 2020.

In an emailed statement on Wednesday, Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin said abandoned sites in Nova Scotia are at “various stages of evaluation,” completion of which could result in additional assessments and remediation needed.

“Any associated financial liabilities that are identified will be reported appropriately,” he assured.

“We will be managing this issue in a fiscally responsible manner, and any updates would be included in a future budget or through a forecast update.”

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READ MORE: Nova Scotia’s Donkin mine allowed limited production incease after roof collapse

Tim Halman, PC MLA for Dartmouth East and a member of the public accounts committee, said his party supports mine reclamation, but expressed concern that he won’t be able to hold the government to account for responsible fiscal management of the issue.

Last year, Liberal committee members restricted the topics of discussion to items directly in the auditor general’s report, prompting some MLAs to walk out of a committee meeting at the time in protest.

“Public accounts would be a great place to be able to bring those (financial) questions,” Halman told Global News. “However, as you know, they’ve limited the scope of that to the auditor general’s report, and here’s a classic example — that we could call this topic to public accounts.”

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Tim Halman speaks with Global News the morning after being elected to the Nova Scotia legislature.
Tim Halman speaks with Global News the morning after being elected to the Nova Scotia legislature. Cory McGraw/Global News

In July, the province announced it would spend $48 million to clean up the former Montague Gold Mines near Dartmouth and Goldenville in Guysborough County. In addition to the money for the two mines in 2018, $230 million was allocated for the cleanup of the Northern Pulp holding ponds at Boat Harbour and another $94 million went to other projects.

Pickup said Wednesday he found no issue with the accounting on those files.

The government has identified four abandoned mines — two gold and two coal — are its current priorities for testing and evaluation, while its work on an overall assessment strategy with the Department of Energy and Mines is ongoing.

READ MORE: N.S. auditor general says the province has failed to implement recommendations

Liberal Hants East MLA Margaret Miller, a former environment minister, said the government’s handling of other contaminated sites, like Boat Harbour, are indicative of its ability to manage the risk on abandoned mines.

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“When (Boat Harbour concerns) came forward, the act came in place, we were committed to cleaning up that site,” she explained. “This government has been addressing all of those concerns so it’s no different that we’re looking at mines the same way.

“We’re looking at which ones are the most serious of the old contaminated sites and remediating those sites as we can.”

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With files from The Canadian Press