Money

The Struggling Canadian Coal Town Desperate to Return to Its Roots

On Cape Breton Island, where the last coal mine closed in 2001 after years of industry decline, an underwater mine near the 500-person village of Donkin is set to bring coal back.

by Katie Toth
Oct 20 2016, 5:00pm


Photo by Steve Wadden unless otherwise noted

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada

The Royal Canadian Legion sits on a main drag in Glace Bay, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia dotted with chain stores and gas stations. Inside a dimly-lit basement, old men circle up to tell stories, drinking cheap beer in bottles. Younger visitors, maybe in their 30s or 40s, play on VLT machines against the wall. The women's washroom, lined with teal and white linoleum, is empty.

Wish Donovan sits near the bar. The 73-year-old retired coal miner holds his cane with authority, talking with his friends. Nearly every man he points out has had family who worked in the dark and cavernous underground known as "the pit"—including Donovan's own dad. But when he first got into the workforce, Wish planned to buck the trend. "I got a job at the post office," he says.

It wasn't long before he was bored out of his brain. "I saw these guys come up from underground all dirty, laughing and joking with each other, and I said, 'Well, it can't be that bad down there.'"

So Donovan told his father he was quitting his stable, safe, government-funded job to work in the mine. "He threw a knife at me."

Stories like these aren't hard to find on Cape Breton Island, where the last coal mine closed in 2001 after years of industry decline. One man told me he lost his arm in a mine explosion, then put his helmet back on and returned to work six months later. Another man, 15 years off the job, said he'd go back in a second if he didn't have two replacement knees; when he sleeps, he sometimes dreams he is trapped underground, unable to find a way out.

Now, an underwater mine about 200 meters [650 feet] below the seabed near the 500-person village of Donkin is set to bring coal back to the east side of Cape Breton. Supporters say the mine will hire over 100 people at full production and extract up to 3 million tons of coal a year. Other locals, however, are divided about whether it will be worth much.

The mine is now owned by Kameron Collieries, a subsidiary of The Cline Group (owned by billionaire coal baron Chris Cline). Bucking approximately zero stereotypes about the industry, these owners and operators have been accused of some very shady activity. Recently, one developer resigned after journalists revealed his management over a West Virginia mine where an explosion killed 26. And the Cline Group, which owns Kameron, is infamous for safety violations in the Midwest. An investigation into four mines where Cline had a majority stake found the company was charged with thousands of safety violations since January 2013.

But in late November, 2014, when the Cline Group got approval to operate the Donkin mine, the excitement was palpable. "It looks like Cape Breton is getting coal for Christmas," announced theCape Breton Post. At that time, the mine was expected to bring as many as 300 jobs to the area.

That news was a gift for Paul Pink and his partner Erin.

The island is "desperate for jobs," he says. "I don't want that to sound mean, but we are desperate."

Pink, who usually goes by Pinky, is an affable guy in a Harley t-shirt, with arms covered in tattoos. Tired of traveling from worksite to worksite, usually out west, Pinky and Erin say they both applied for jobs at the mine, hoping to stay home near family. "If there was work [in Cape Breton] I don't think we'd ever leave," he says.



Pinky and Erin. Photo by the author

That need for work in Cape Breton is motivating unexpected supporters of the mine—like the 30-something manager at a local head shop, or the Vancouverite who'd moved across the country in order to open Sydney's go-to hipster coffee joint.

None of them think digging coal out of the ground is ideal for the environment. One person called it a "necessary evil." One in three Cape Breton children live in poverty. And the island's population is plummeting. In 2006, the island had almost 143,000 people; by 2011, that number was closer to 135,000. Meanwhile, Nova Scotia Power already burns coal in Cape Breton, shipped in from South America—coal that many call "blood coal" because of dangerous labor practices used in its sourcing.

If we're already burning the stuff, the thinking seems to go, let's at least get a piece of the profit.

Other Cape Bretoners are more skeptical. We're talking about 300 jobs or fewer in a place with a 14 percent unemployment rate. Some people even question whether the coal will be extracted. Eleven years ago, Nova Scotia gave permission to another private operator, Xstrata, to start mining at Donkin; they sat on it for years, then left. Besides, operators can change their plans as quickly as coal prices fluctuate.

"I hope that other Nova Scotians don't think we expect this mine to change anything," says Nelson MacDonald, an award-winning Canadian film producer who lives in Sydney. "People I know just roll their eyes at it."

If the mine is all sound and fury signifying nothing, than Cape Breton's economy is dealing with the same question it's been struggling with for a generation. If not coal, then what?

"Personally, I see coal as kind of an archaic form of energy," says Mackie MacLeod. "We're left in the ruins of coal mining right now. So why would we turn back to that and think that it's a good idea?"

Mackie's building a bakery he co-owns in Glace Bay, 12 kilometers [7 miles] from Donkin. When he's not getting the bakery ready, he's often producing local music or doing marketing work for the nearby Miner's Museum.

Kind of like the diversity in his own job portfolio, Mackie would rather build an economy that can be resilient when employers leave or markets change. "I'm doing what I do... to create jobs in this community," he says. "Being a new generation of people sticking around here."

What, exactly, will that look like? Some folks point to new businesses like Marcato, which makes software for music festivals like Coachella, as the new kind of Sydney success story. Others look to the tourism industry for inspiration. Phillip Glass does have a place here, after all. And the town of Inverness, on the west side of the island, has become so renowned for its luxury hotel and golf courses that the Globe and Mail dubbed the place "Canada's Hamptons."

"I want jobs, but I think we need to focus on jobs that are in the creative industry, in the tourism industry, in the resources that we have that aren't going to damage us in the future," says Amanda MacDougall. MacDougall was just elected municipal councillor representing an area near Sydney, close to the mines. She won against her incumbent, a booster of the mine, by 55 votes. Now, she plans to focus on those creative jobs she considers so critical.

"We're sitting in Louisburg and we have a national historic site [the Fortress of Louisburg] down the road. How can we keep those tourists in Louisburg outside the two-and-a-half hours they spend in the park?" she asks. "Culture and tourism for Cape Breton ... that's our coal mine. It's already here."

Even if the mine is a boon for the economy, it will be the return of a dirty, dangerous industry. Locals still speak of a fatal 1992 explosion in mainland Nova Scotia's Westray Mine like it was yesterday. And after Cape Breton closed its steel plant (which used coal) in 2001, the island spent years trying to figure out how to clean up ponds of carcinogenic sludge left behind.

Pinky still thinks that a mine operating in Donkin would be a good idea "if it's done right." By that, he means safely, with union representation underground.

But Pinky hasn't been hired, so he's still roaming. Kameron did have 300 contractors clean out the mine and prepare it for coal extraction, according to the CBC, but as of August 2016, that number had shrunk to approximately 50 people who were still working on site. When I met Pinky he was living outside Halifax, over five hours away from home; Erin was about to head to Toronto for another work contract.

"I was daydreaming about eating lunch on the beach," Pinky says. "That novelty wore off quick... Now it's like, what was I thinking?"

We asked Kameron and the Cline Group a series of questions about their safety record and the number of people currently working in the mine. They have not got back to us but we will update this story if they do.

Follow Katie Toth on Twitter.