"Our watershed has one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the province," says Raymond Parker, president of the Avon Peninsula Watershed Preservation Society in Hants County. Parker can be certain in his claim because that biodiversity is threatened by a 50-year mining extension by Fundy Gypsum.
The environmental assessment confirms the importance of the area. It contains a number of species of concern, like the ram's head orchid, the black ash, possibly some rare beetles and important habitat features like winter resting spots for bats. Yet the project has received conditional approval from the province.
"It went through the environmental assessment process," says Helen MacPhail, an environmental assessment officer with the department of environment. "Both provincial and federal reviewers carefully considered all the information, including input from the public and interest groups."
Based on that analysis, Environment minister Sterling Belliveau conditionally approved 105 hectares of Fundy Gypsum's 347-hectare mining extension request. Fundy will also be required to plan a 46-hectare conservation area in the vicinity.
"Considerable baseline data has to be gathered," MacPhail says. Fundy Gypsum must look more closely at the impacts it will have on surface and groundwater, rare plant species and the local bat population, meaning it will be at least two years before it gets final approvals. But the locals and environmentalists are saying the project should never have reached this stage.
"The Conservative government raised questions with Fundy Gypsum's statement of intent in spring 2008," says David Patriquin, a retired biology professor and the president of the Halifax Field Naturalists. "They should have just turned it down. The approval makes a complete farce of biodiversity and watershed protection---this is smack in the headwaters of an important watershed."
Patriquin calls the conservation area, which is one of the province's conditions of approval, a "Noah's Ark approach" to biodiversity, isolating a small portion of plants and animals and thinking they can be preserved that way. "To survive they need potential habitats as well as current habitats," he says. "This will reduce species by a significant factor."
Patriquin is also concerned about the potential impacts on what he calls "the most beautiful pastoral landscape in Nova Scotia." Some stretches of farmland go right from deep inland forest all the way to the sea, protecting the headwaters. "This could have major impacts from mining trucks and the noise impacts livestock and wildlife."
Parker notes that Shaw Brook Dairy Farm, which sends thousands of litres of milk daily to Halifax, will lose its only sources of water. He says the community and environment have been overruled by the faulty claims of a biased consultant and a government that ran on a platform of listening to the people. "For fewer and fewer jobs, we're sending gypsum south of the border for pennies a tonne and we're sending our clean air, water, biodiversity, agricultural capacity and quality of life with it," Parker says.
The community had just a month to respond to Fundy Gypsum's 700-page-plus focus report to government. "We read their submission and found that in each of five areas they were deficient. What our community group learned through the EA process is that the information the company puts forth can be suspect."
Parker is not surprised by the shortcomings of the assessment, given that the work was done by Conestoga Rovers & Associates. Its CEO is Pete Oram, who is also president of the Nova Scotia Mining Association.
Parker says the community is shocked by Belliveau's decision. The company had been struggling and had shut down the mine, laying off employees. "Word was they dropped the proposal," he says.
Based on its election promises, Parker expected the NDP government to pay more attention to the community. "In reply to the pre-election survey conducted by the Nova Scotia Environmental Network," he says, "the NDP stated that it supports full, meaningful participation throughout the EA process." He is quoting directly from the NDP's survey response.
Parker feels that based on the community's concerns over its environment, the minister should have called for a more thorough assessment process, including a full public consultation. He is relieved, though, by the restrictions on the project, and hopes the province will "follow through with close oversight rather than relying on the proponent's consultants to determine whether the conditions can be met."