Cape Breton: Down, But Not Out

Rising coal prices revive mining dreams.

You have to work hard to catch a glimpse of the last vestige of Cape Breton's fabled coal industry. Blink and you'll miss the sharp left off the highway and the gravel road that runs along a stretch of craggy beach. Then, you have to park at a chained iron gate and walk 10 minutes down a dirt trail and past a No Trespassing sign. It's been some 20 years since any mining exploration took place in the community of Donkin. The big corrugated-metal storage shed and concrete portals to the abandoned pithead show the two decades of neglect. Standing there in the mist, without a human in sight, you have to picture how it looked and sounded back in the 1980s, when the Cape Breton Development Corp. (DEVCO) was spending more than $100 million exploring a seam thought to rival the combined tonnage of all coal mined in the island's history. Then you have to imagine the discouragement a few years later when the price of coal had tumbled so deeply that the tunnels, which run three kilometres under the ocean, were abandoned and allowed to flood with water.

Ah, but what a difference US$125-per-tonne coal makes. The Nova Scotia government now has three proposals in hand to develop the 300-million-tonne Donkin seam. Granted, the 200 to 300 miners expected to find work there pale compared to the 12,000 who went underground when coal was king during the Second World War. But it's all relative: when the last underground mine, the Prince colliery, closed in 2001, coal was viewed as a passé power source. Nowadays, the island's once storied industry has shrunk to one strip-mining operation employing just a dozen or so people. So is it any surprise Donkin's future is big news in Cape Breton? “I'd go underground tomorrow if I had the opportunity,” declares Blair Boone, who had spent almost 23 years in the mines when Prince closed.

Those words elicit a round of nods from the crew sipping beer in Steve Drake's rec room in New Waterford, about 30 kilometres from the Donkin site. Off to the right stands a photograph of Drake, the former head of the United Mine Workers of America's District 26 in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, in his orange miner's coveralls and pit helmet on the University of New Brunswick campus where he studied law after the mines closed. Not all the ex-miners present have rewritten their lives in such an uplifting fashion: a few feet away sits David Reashore who, at 52, has been laying asphalt for a living since Prince shut down. At the back of the room, Brian McNeil, 54, slumps on the sofa, apparently still showing the effects of a three-month stint in the coal mines of Grande Cache, Alta., far from his family.

The Prince closure left them in their mid- to late 40s and without pensions after a combined total of nearly 90 years in the pit. For all that, they're still better off than the miners whose marriages broke up, who had to go on welfare or even committed suicide once the last shift ended. “It's been hard,” says Boone, who found a job managing a call centre, but hated the work so much he quit and now has a job with the Canada Revenue Agency. “These towns are filled with sad stories.”

What other kind could there be in a place where the official unemployment rate hovers around 15% and the unofficial level is much higher in those pockets hardest hit by the mine losses? Sure, some call centres broke ground. But turnover can be high and the pay low compared with working in the pit. And the offshore energy industry–another hoped-for panacea for the region–has not been a big moneymaker for Nova Scotians. The upshot: “Less disposable income, a lack of job security and difficulty in retaining skilled people,” says Elizabeth Beale, president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council. “The demise of the coal industry has had an economic impact far beyond the mining sector.”

Walk through a community like Glace Bay–which, like most towns in industrial Cape Breton, sprang up in the 1800s when the mines opened–and it's easy to see that the region is tottering. For Sale signs are everywhere in the residential areas. At the Sterling Mall, as much space seems to be vacant as leased. Glace Bay's only growth industry seems to be dollar stores. To the casual observer, there are no obvious indications of the epidemic of OxyContin abuse, sometimes called “hillbilly heroin,” which has caused at least a dozen deaths in the area. On the town's main drag, though, a knot of sullen-looking youths aimlessly gathers in the middle of a weekday.

No wonder people are leaving in droves: the latest census shows the population in Cape Breton county had dropped by 7% in the previous five years. A 2004 study predicts that another 42,000 people will flee the island (current population: 136,000) between 2001 and 2021.

That's a dispiriting thought, considering the price their predecessors have paid to live in Cape Breton. Stand in New Waterford's Colliery Lands Park–in front of a series of stone pillars carved with the names of the 300 or so men who have died in the local mines since 1866–and it's obvious that living here has never been easy. Certainly not back in the 1920s, when buying everything at the company-owned store was a way of life and the colliery strikes were so rancorous that company police gunned down miner Bill Davis during a labour standoff in 1925.

It wasn't until the late 1970s that miners finally started making a decent wage. By then, though, the big global forces were already turning against coal. The federal government spent more than a billion dollars keeping the mines open. But by the late 1990s, enough was enough and DEVCO began closing down the last two mines. In towns like Glace Bay, Sydney Mines and New Waterford, the bitterness from the closures still lingers.

The spate of new activity is unlikely to change that. The Nova Scotia government has called for proposals to develop and reclaim four mining blocks, which allow the operators to excavate the soil and rock above tapped-out underground seams and remove the remaining coal in return for restoring the surface land for some practical purpose. “At the end of the day, we're cleaning up something that's messy and dangerous and making it useful,” says John Chisholm, president of Antigonish, N.S.-based Pioneer Coal Ltd., which has applied to operate mines in two sites on the island.

There's money to be made–for some. Production from any surface mine will be puny compared to the big underground operations that in their heyday each produced millions of tonnes annually. But it takes only a few dozen or so workers to operate a surface mine. And those tiny payrolls can do wonders for profit margins.

The problem, from the operators' point of view, is that surface or “strip” mines tend to attract controversy. Residents near Point Aconi, site of the old Prince underground mine, have banded together to fight a proposal by Thomas Brogan and Sons Construction Ltd. to extract a 50,000-tonne block of coal, which they fear will deplete their water supply. The Brogans also wanted to start a strip mine in Port Morien, a picturesque retirement village, that supplied the coal for the construction of the Fortress of Louisbourg in the early 18th century. But the proposal was killed after opposition sprang up from residents worried that the mine would pollute their water supplies and ruin the rich lobster beds nearby. “There are too many unknowns,” says Ron Peach, a retired RCMP officer who lives in Port Morien. “And for what?”

Nobody's complaining about the possibility of Donkin finally being developed. Any aspiring operator will have to spend about $200 million to get the mine up and running. But with coal fetching triple what it did a few years ago, recouping the investment would be easy. The developer, whoever it is, won't have to look far for a customer: Nova Scotia Power, the provincial utility, imports coal internationally for its coal-fired electrical plant in Lingan, a few kilometres from Donkin. Being next door means Cape Breton coal should be some $18-per-tonne cheaper than the foreign variety.

The start of a full-scale coal comeback? Cape Bretoners just seem happy to have the possibility of going back underground while a few of them still have the skills to do so. As the men at Steve Drake's place say, once coal dust gets into your blood, you just can't get rid of it. “The pit isn't a job,” explains Drake, whose father and grandfather both worked in the New Waterford mines. “It's part of a brotherhood. It's your identity. I work as a lawyer now. But I'm always going to be a coal miner.” Even if he is one of a dying breed still able to make that claim.