MAC: Mines and Communities

Dirty coal stories on the homefront

Published by MAC on 2005-04-30

Dirty coal stories on the homefront

By Ralph Surette, The Halifax Herald Limited

April 30, 2005

My March 26 column entitled "The dirty story of where we get our coal," about the human and environmental brutality surrounding the Colombian mine where Nova Scotia Power gets its coal, brought me some illuminating responses regarding some of our own dirty coal stories.

First, the Nova Scotia government has called for proposals for up to 10 strip mines in a 20-kilometre radius from Sydney, mostly along the shore from Boularderie on one side to past Port Morien on the other. The whole thing makes little sense economically, environmentally or in human terms; and the instinct that brought it about seems to be merely old-fashioned politics. Most of the people in the communities are implacably opposed, and a fierce opposition is rising.

Second, Nova Scotia is missing the boat on energy alternatives. Ontario has announced it is getting off coal completely; P.E.I. is moving ahead aggressively with wind energy; and an extensive wind farm is going up in the Gaspé, complete with local manufacturing to build and operate the turbines - a job creator as well as a provider of renewable energy. Although there are a few wind turbines coming on, Nova Scotia - despite its huge potential - is way behind in this game, say critics, because of energy policies too attached to coal and the offshore.

Not to mention that NSP's coal-fired generators, notably Lingan, are near the top of the list among Canada's worst polluters.

Coal, let us remember, has been at the heart of the most corrupt and lunk-headed aspects of the politics we have mostly, but not entirely, left behind in Nova Scotia. At the bottom of the political pit was the Westray mine which blew up in 1992, killing 26 miners. Lest we forget, an international mining expert told the Westray inquiry it was the worst, most dangerous mine he had ever seen, worse than in any dictator-ridden republic; and a Nova Scotia mine inspector testified it was his job to more or less not inspect.

My sensitive nostrils pick up a whiff of the old politics in this Cape Breton strip-mining business. Our old friend the Department of Natural Resources, guardian of reactionary economic thinking within the provincial government, usually seen straight-arming on the issue of forest clearcutting, has dumped these strip-mine plans on the communities. True to form, it has rigged up after-the-fact consultations with the communities, but is prepared to budge only on small details regarding environmental remediation.

Meanwhile, opponents are wild because a local operator who seems to be one of the government's favourites has been in court for environmental infractions, has been caught mining on someone else's land, and is accused by them of strong-arm tactics (including threatening expropriation) against vulnerable private owners of strip-mineable land.

The main arguments against (and they prevailed in 1984 when a Tory government knocked down strip-mining proposals for some of these areas) are acidic runoff into groundwater, lakes, streams and the ocean; and that strip mining negates government spending on tourism in Cape Breton. Jobs are negligible since strip mining is mostly done with machines. The arguments in favour, whatever they are, remain mysterious.

On the related issue of our energy policy, Neal Livingston, who has had a small hydro plant in Guysborough County for 20 years and is involved with some wind-power proposals, says that if Nova Scotia had been at all progressive, it would not only have more wind generation, "but also manufacturing capacity to go with it." Because of Nova Scotia's large potential for wind energy, there have been investors interested, "but they knock on the door and no one's home."

The private producers of alternate energy have problems with NSP - especially the fact that it's paying less for private power than neighbouring jurisdictions - and argue that it's lagging in the pursuit of alternate energy despite its claims to the contrary. However, says Livingston, the root of the problem is dysfunctional government policy. "They're stuck in a 20-year-old mindset." Pursuing strip mining in the middle of tourist country seems to be the proof of it.

Ralph Surette is a veteran Nova Scotia journalist living in Yarmouth County. The Halifax Herald Limited

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