What’s Behind a Matador’s Cape? Questioning Matador Mining’s Proposed Cape Ray Gold Project in Southwest Ktaqmkuk

Behind the short-term economic lure of Matador Mining’s Cape Ray Project lurks potential long-term environmental harm.
A matador holds his muleta, the cape that obscures his sword, in the final stage of a bullfight.
Photo by: Diego Serebrisky via Wikipedia.

On August 24, 2020 the Wreckhouse Weekly published its first edition. The Port-Aux-Basques’ mayor, John Spencer said that it marked “the birth of a new media outlet.” He commended its inauguration in a letter to the editor, remarking that, “To publish a new local newspaper in the midst of so much uncertainty socially, politically and economically speaks volumes for its creators. Communities need local news coverage and Wreckhouse Weekly will fill this void.” And it does.

In the same issue some important and provocative local news was shared in an article titled, “Matador Mining makes progress,” penned by the paper’s editor, Rosalyn Roy. The article offered details about the status of Matador Mining’s activities in the province. 

Matador Mining is a gold exploration corporation, based out of Perth, Western Australia, that is currently developing the Cape Ray gold mining project on the Southwest coast of the island. 

The article summarized an update the company had provided at a recent e-conference. Held just a few days before, it included members of the media and the Port-Aux-Basques town council and staff. Matador disclosed that it had performed some field work and preliminary drilling, but it had only covered 15 km of the Cape Ray gold shield so far. They announced they would continue their exploration of the full 120 km into the next two years, after which they hope to move forward with production.  

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The company anticipates the project will last 10 years, and yield 10 million ounces of gold. However, before the pathway to production can get underway, the project must pass a comprehensive environmental assessment. Contaminants like cyanide and mercury are involved in the mining of gold. The company will have to demonstrate how it plans to reduce the negative impacts mining will have on the health of plants, animals, and humans. The accumulation of toxic effluents, it is worth noting, was a major contributor to the closure of BP’s Hope Brook project on the South coast of Newfoundland in May of 1991. A decade later, the province was still addressing the residual adverse environmental effects

This update on Matador’s “progress” inspired so many thoughts and questions for me, that I wrote a letter to the editor in response. It appeared in the Wreckhouse Weekly a month later. There, I shared my concerns about the negative impacts that Matador’s gold mining activities will have on the land, the plants, animals, and people who call it home, now and in generations to come.

How do we define “progress” in an age defined by climate change, in full awareness of the urgent need for environmental, energetic, and economic sustainability? How much is 10 years of employment worth, 10 years of investment in the local economy? Is it worth more than a lifetime of health and environmental stability? What does 10 years feel like? Does it feel like enough? 

During the e-conference, Matador Mining stated that they will “continue to work with various stakeholders including outfitters, special interest groups, and Indigenous communities and will continue to work with the public to mitigate concerns.” This phrasing sounds cooperative but I question their intentions and their abilities. 

“Mitigation” means: to make something less severe, serious, or painful. How will Matador mitigate the destruction of entire ecosystems, or reduce the poisoning of area watersheds? How will they communicate with all Indigenous people and their communities when not all of the Indigenous people who call the Southwest coast Ancestral Territory and home are  (conveniently) unrecognized? How will Matador communicate laterally and equally with all stakeholders when the land itself is a stakeholder? 

Matador promises to host public meetings to address concerns only after federal and provincial government environmental guidelines have been met. That is, only after they are prepared to go ahead will they consider community concerns. At the time of this writing, there have been no further community meetings or attempts to work generatively with stakeholders. However, Matador Mining has made a request to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada for more time to complete the environmental assessment.

Looking at the general practices of extractive industry, it’s not hard to see the destruction left in its wake, and the problems that continue for decades after any given project. 

Look to British Columbia, for example, where in 2014 thousands of gallons of tailings slurry burst into Polley Lake from the Mount Polley Gold Mine, which in effect ruined the watershed.

In 2016, the actions of Canadian company Barrick Gold led to several chemical spills into rivers in Argentina, including a spill of over a million litres of cyanide solution. Cyanide, it is worth remembering, was the poison used in gas chambers during the Holocaust. 

Between 1908 and 1939, a Canadian company released several hundred thousand tonnes of gold mine tailings over the land in Sudbury, Ontario. 81 years later, the region is still coping with elevated arsenic levels in the water, to say nothing of the upgrades required to maintain the containment facility. Arsenic is a highly hazardous substance, and it carries a human lethal dose 50 of 2 – 20mg/kg. 

Tailings ponds are known to be extraordinarily pollutive. Tailings are an aqueous slurry of mine wastes that require perpetual containment. Tailings must be dumped and stored in water, hence the term tailings “ponds.” However, the contaminants in a tailings pond can be transported by wind and water to cover an even larger distance. Islanders and coast dwellers can see how far salt spray is carried. Imagine the evaporation of water, and picture Wreckhouse Winds (sometimes exceeding 200 km/h) moving across a tailings pond. 

Run-off, although low in heavy metals, is extremely high in acid. While the acid dissolves heavy metals like mercury, for example, that same acidic run-off is one of the very highest forms of mining-related pollution.  

Gold mining produces contaminants like cyanide and arsenic. Photo by Ross Sokolovski on Unsplash

Many of the heavy metals used in gold mines are exactly that, heavy. It is not uncommon that the sediment full of metal contaminants from mining activity settle into soils. Though, when they’re fine enough, they can also be carried in the wind: picture again, those powerful Wreckhouse Winds. These metals are not biodegradable and so they endure in the soil, contaminating them for generations.

Without vibrant life in the water and soil, life above ground cannot flourish. Lack of soil flora and fauna means no plants, no fungi, no animals. Life begins, and ends, with water and soil. 

We are all connected to the land that Matador intends to mine. Their activities affect us all. The level at which we understand the reaches of this project begs a larger question – not only about the extraction or protection of resources, but about the value and the meaning we give to “resources” and land. Do we see the enduring value in healthy ecosystems, stable, and supportive for future generations, or do we see only the immediate monetary value that will benefit some, right now? Do we truly give consideration and care to the land, the water, the soil, the plants, and other animals that support existence – or do we believe humans can live well on money alone?

I wonder, what are the real, tangible benefits of a project like this? The mine will certainly provide a number of menial, short- term wage-labour jobs in the province. Matador states that they’ve hired some local companies from St. John’s and Gander to work in the field here. However, St. John’s and Gander are not local to the Southwest Coast. Still, these visiting workers may inject a small amount of money into our local economy; there will be products purchased on the island offering some economic kickbacks through local procurement. But at the end of the day, the bulk of the money will go back to Australia, another island in another ocean. 

Eventually Matador will go back to Australia too. The project’s economic lifespan is only 10 years, but its environmental legacy will last a lifetime. I wonder what the true legacy is?

What will the effects on the land be while the mine is in operation? How much clean-up and mess will be left when the company pulls out? How much of the money earned through the project will be spent on long-term, meaningful, and effective remediation? Even if Matador does take their environmental responsibilities seriously, and does a few years of reclamation work, the land will never be the same. No one will recognize the land after a gold mine tosses it aside. 

If we are really to invest in Southwestern communities in Ktaqmkuk, wouldn’t investment in local people, businesses, and agencies with an eye to the future be a wise one? I believe that investing in those with interests in long-term environmental, economic, and social sustainability with a commitment to taking care of this place is a reasonable thing to support.

The inclination to act on this exists here. In the very same edition of the Wreckhouse Weekly, there was a suggestion that a farmers’ market be set-up. A farmers’ market promotes local vendors, producers, and artisans. Farms after all do feed people, local arts and crafts feed people too, local businesses do keep money in the community, while also providing jobs that keep residents here for the long-term. We can also guarantee, if there’s an outlet for people to sell their goods, it will encourage the growth of more  businesses and local producers.This will contribute to making the whole Southwest Coast more of a sustainable community and a destination. For us who live here all of the time, it’ll be an even greater community in which to be apart. 

According to one study, for every $100 spent locally, almost 70% stays in the community. Whereas for every $100 spent on businesses not owned locally only 40% stays. Investing in local enterprise matters to the future of sustainable communities. 

10 years of extractivist work will not feed the next generation, it will not make sure that the land is able to support them. It will not encourage the next generation to care deeply about this place, it will not ensure that the people fall in love and stay in love with the land, becoming stewards of it. Extrativist work will not prioritize the Southwest Coast and all of its rich culture, history, and vitality encouraging continuance. Indeed, this project could degrade our own present relationships to the land. 

10  years of income from a gold mine is not going to stay here and what does stay, won’t be enough to make up for the destruction inherent in the process. 

Map depicting the proposed location for the Cape Ray Gold project. Screencap from: The Public Notice.

Elsewhere in the inaugural print edition of the Wreckhouse Weekly, the mayor offered a call to action:, “don’t just show up, do more” he wrote. It is simply not enough to say that industry is important or that the project will infuse money into Southwest Newfoundland. It’s not enough when the activity that will bring money will also completely alter, beyond repair, the very land that makes us who we are, the land that we call home. The same land that so many important birds, plants, animals, and fish call home too. Today’s and future youth are the ones who will have to deal with the mess after Matador is long gone. We are part of this natural network. We are the land and what we do and allow to be done to the land, we do to the people too.

Indeed, let us “do more”and I add, look farther than 10 years, take the long view. Look ahead to generations, think like the land. When we think like the land, we think backwards and forwards in time, while acting now. We think about the diversity of our kin who are our neighbours. We entangle ourselves with everything and everyone around us and understand we are interdependent. We think about beauty and balance. 

And, let us “do better.” The Southwest coast has been working hard to encourage people to stay and to become a destination for visitors and newcomers—a meaningful investment in its  communities will do that.

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