The controversial arrest of an opponent to the Cochrane Hill gold project in Nova Scotia at an information session last week was a "setback," Atlantic Gold Corp. said, but would not delay development of unpermitted gold projects in its 12-year Moose River Consolidated mine plan or affect a C$722 million takeover by St Barbara Ltd.
"Overall it's a setback, for sure, in our public relations exercise for Cochrane Hill," said Sean Thompson, Atlantic Gold's investor relations manager. "But we believe it does not have a bearing on the environmental review process."
On May 24, an Atlantic Gold security guard called the police to remove John Perkins, who opposes the development of the project, from an information session where the company hosted mining and tailings experts to talk about the impact of the project. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Perkins, using force after he resisted arrest.
"The man was eventually controlled, handcuffed and later released without charge," the police said in a statement.
But Perkins and others at the meeting denied that there was a disturbance that warranted police intervention, much of which was caught on video. Perkins said he was just there to ask questions.
Thompson said the incident was regrettable. "In this particular case there were some mistakes made managing the few opposing actors."
The controversy has thrust Atlantic Gold's development plans into the spotlight in Nova Scotia and comes at a sensitive time for the company. It is in the middle of a takeover by St Barbara and is also banking on federal and provincial permits for a series of deposits that are crucial to its 12-year mining plans.
Atlantic Gold wants to grow gold output in the early 2020s from three deposits — Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile and Cochrane Hill — as reserves are depleted at the Touquoy deposit, which produces about 100,000 ounces of gold per year.
The company submitted an environmental impact statement for Beaver Dam in February and plans to do the same for Fifteen Mile and Cochrane Hill later this year. It expects to start mining the deposits between 2021 and 2023.
Conservation groups have spearheaded a campaign against the expansion plans, Cochrane Hill in particular, and said Perkins' arrest shows a lack of social license for the project. Opponents include the St. Mary's River Association, the Atlantic Salmon Federation and former Empire Co. CEO Paul Sobey, whose family donated land near the proposed mine to the Nova Scotia Nature Trust.
Critics of Cochrane Hill said the proposed mine, about a kilometer from the St. Mary's River, could pollute the watershed and harm fish and other animals, among other impacts. The St. Mary's River is one of the more significant rivers in the province for dwindling stocks of Atlantic salmon, which have been in decline for decades.
Scott Beaver, president of the St. Mary's River Association, said proposed tailings facilities would be about 100 meters from a lake that feeds the river through McKeen's Brook, which the association has stocked with Atlantic salmon.
"It flows into arguably the most important habitat in the river for salmon and wood turtles," Beaver said. "They're right in the area where we don't want them."
Thompson said Atlantic Gold would use best practices at Cochrane Hill and rely on technical expertise it has learned in operating the Touquoy mine. He said opponents are "one small minority" trying to be heard in the permitting process, and Atlantic Gold does not expect them to have an impact on mining plans.
"At the end of the day, we hope we're given a fair chance," Thompson said.
Beaver said the St. Mary's River Association is ready to oppose Cochrane Hill once it enters the federal process this year. The group has hired Ann Maest with Buka Environmental, which specializes in environmental assessments, to help it respond to Atlantic Gold's permitting application once the process begins.
The St. Mary's River Association has also asked the Nova Scotia government to block the transfer of mining concessions to St Barbara amid the unfolding takeover. It is not clear if the government would consider the request. A spokesperson for the Department of Energy and Mines said it has yet to receive a transfer request, and when it does, it would be assessed based on the regular regulations and requirements.
"We don't believe this will have any impact on our St Barbara transaction," Thompson said.
Beaver said he had not spoken with the Nova Scotia government about the request, though members of the opposition parties had promised to bring it up.
"I definitely see it as a possibility," Beaver said, regarding a potential intervention on the takeover. "Now, I wouldn't have seen it as a possibility prior to Thursday night."
Tim Houston, the Progressive Conservative leader of the opposition, could not be reached for comment, but a spokesperson said he is aware of the controversy over the arrest, and it had come up in a recent cabinet meeting.