Since 2008, there has been a major development project flying under the radar in New Brunswick. The Sisson Brook project is a proposal for one of the world’s largest open pit mines for tungsten and molybdenum. The mine, if it goes ahead, will be dug out of the headwaters of the Nashwaak River, 100km (by road) north of Fredericton upstream from the Village of Stanley. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, not many people are aware of the mine, and even fewer are talking about it.
The scale of the development is alarming by both New Brunswick and world standards. The information on the specifics of the project is sparse; however, from available proponent and government documents, the project is slated to have an overall footprint of 1800ha and an open pit 250m deep. The two associated tailings dams rival the most massive in the world at 70-80m in height and 6km in combined length. By contrast, the Mactaquac dam is up to 55m in height and 0.5km long.
A number of residents and local organizations have been following the 400M$ development since its original proponent registered the project with both the provincial and federal environmental review processes. The project was later sold to Northcliff Resources, a subsidiary of Hunter Dickison Inc.
The Nashwaak Watershed Association (NWAI) and the New Brunswick Salmon Council are particularly concerned about the potential affect the development will have on the pristine state of the Nashwaak River ecosystem. The watershed has been provisionally classified as “A” (“Excellent”) water quality by the provincial government. This water quality is a large contributor to the fact that the Nashwaak is home to a relatively healthy and recovering run of Outer Bay of Fundy Atlantic Salmon which has been recommended to be listed as “Endangered” under the Federal Species at Risk Act.
In June, NWAI, with 4 other community-based groups, submitted the formal request to the Department of Environment and Local Government to legally classify the river and its tributaries under section 8.2 of the Water Classification Regulation of the Clean Water Act. The implementation of the Water Classification program has been stalled in 22 watersheds around the province. Both the government and Northcliff have been unwilling to incorporate these water quality standards into the Environmental Assessment (EA) process.
Ecological concerns aside, Lawrence Wuest, a resident of Stanley and an active follower of the development, says there are serious financial concerns with the proposal. “The tungsten at Sisson is actually of very poor quality at 0.07%,” says Wuest, noting that other tungsten mines in North America have tungsten ore that has a concentration approaching 3%, 40 times that of at Sisson ore.
Wuest explains that “in order to pay off initial investors and attract new ones, the mine will zero in on the sweet spots of ore in the initial years. The remaining ore will be lower in overall quality and the mine will quickly depreciate into a marginal up and down enterprise, periodically leaving an enlarged workforce to wallow in a revised EI regime, creating a myriad of health and social problems.”
Despite their concerns of ecological and financial risks, local organizations have been trying to maintain lines of communication with government and Northcliff.
Gary Spencer, an active member of both the NWAI and Salmon Council and a resident of the area, says that each group has been very actively involved since the EA process began. However, Spencer has become frustrated over the past year saying that an absence of open and honest communications with the proponent and regulators leads him to believe that the best interests of the residents and the watershed are not being protected.
“Since year one, we cannot say that we have really been afforded an opportunity for stakeholder engagement” says Spencer. “We have had lots of opportunity to speak but it appears that we have not had much opportunity to be heard.”
Spencer is referring to the fact that many of the organizations’ concerns have been left out of the official Terms of Reference (TOR) for the EA and a stakeholder consultation report issued by Northcliff in recent months. Furthermore, the Taymouth Community Association says they are listed in the report as having been “consulted” with however spokesperson Peter DeMarsh says that is absolutely not true. DeMarsh says that their organization hadn’t even been contacted by Northcliff until after the report was issued.
The EA study report is expected to be released by Northcliff in autumn 2012. In the meantime, Mac MacFarlane, a camp owner near Nashwaak Lake, in the vicinity of the proposed mine site, has taken it upon himself to engage with the public. MacFarlane has given a number of information presentations to different interest groups in the region, and is willing to present more.
“The public cannot legitimately participate in an EA process if they have no idea that the proposal exists or what it consists of,” says MacFarlane. “I wanted to at least get people thinking and talking, and so far most people have been absolutely shocked at the scale of this proposed operation.”
CCNB Action and NWAI have been granted official intervener status by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). CCNB will be bringing a suite of academics together to review the Environmental Assessment study report prepared by Northcliff in autumn of 2012.