Environmental groups critical of work resumption at Cape Breton's Donkin mine

·3 min read

HALIFAX — Provincial approval of the resumption of work at Cape Breton’s Donkin coal mine after a two-year closure is being heavily criticized by environmental groups.

The underground mine, shuttered in March 2020 amid slumping coal prices and roof falls that led to repeated government stop-work orders, resumed operations on Tuesday.

“It’s pretty absurd but it’s not surprising,” Tynette Deveaux of Sierra Club Canada said in an interview Thursday. “You’d like to think that governments learn from past mistakes but apparently not.”

Deveaux said the restart of the mine is a safety concern given the operator’s spotty record. According to the provincial Labour Department, it had issued 152 warnings and 119 compliance orders to mine owner Kameron Coal Ltd., since work initially began in February 2017.

In March 2020, Kameron Coal ceased production citing “adverse geologic conditions after a roof fall at the mine the previous month in which no one was injured.

The department has said it will continue to conduct regular announced and unannounced inspections at the mine, adding that work is still prohibited in areas where rockfalls occurred previously.

But Deveaux remains unconvinced by the assurances.

“Whether the department is doing surprise inspections or not, worker safety is on the line,” she said.

And while Deveaux believes the mining jobs are important for local workers, she said they are in an “accept-this-or-nothing position” when it comes to employment in the area.

“I think it speaks to both the lack of imagination and ingenuity on the part of this government and previous governments and it also says a lot about the disingenuousness of their promises to invest in a green economy,” she said.

James Edwards, who represents the district where the mine is located on Cape Breton Regional Municipal Council and also sits on the mine’s community liaison committee, said the reopening with up to 150 jobs is “positive news” for the area.

“It’s a huge employer for our community,” said Edwards. “We’re talking about an economically depressed area with high unemployment and high child poverty levels.”

He acknowledged his own concerns about safety, but said he believes the mine will be operated as safely as possible given the inherent risks for an operation that extends three kilometres under the Atlantic Ocean.

“That concern is there, and that is not lost on anybody,” he said.

Edwards also pointed out that the mine’s coal, which is primarily for export, is needed in Europe, which is facing an energy crunch as a result of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

But Thomas Arnason McNeil, of the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre, said the mine’s resumption is part of the “fundamental hypocrisy” behind mining and other fossil fuel extraction in Canada.

Arnason McNeil said it’s a common refrain that it’s fine to burn fossil fuels elsewhere in the world while federal targets are set towards getting to a net-zero economy in Canada.

And while Nova Scotia has a legislated target to phase out coal power by 2030, Arnason McNeil said production at Donkin will contribute to increased methane emissions in the province.

“I think that (the mine) goes against the spirit of Nova Scotia’s coal phaseout, and I think that it should not have been approved,” he said.

The provincial Environment Department has said that it has directed the company to update its greenhouse gas management plan to ensure there are measures in place to mitigate emissions.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2022.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press