Close Cape Breton’s coal industry
by Fred McMahon

The Moncton Times and Transcript, The Halifax Daily News

It’s time to let Cape Breton’s coal industry die a natural death. The cost of keeping it alive is just too immense in wasted treasure, pollution, lost jobs, and squandered economic opportunity throughout Nova Scotia. Unreasonably high prices for coal-generated electricity make Nova Scotia a less attractive place to do business and create employment.

To top it all off, our anxiousness to protect this losing proposition has become a national and international embarrassment–a problem Premier Russell MacLellan seems intent on worsening at all costs.

First, some take-your-breath-away numbers on the cost of keeping the mines open. We may believe the bleeding’s been stanched over this decade. But, from 1990 to 1997, the Cape Breton Development Corporation lost well over half a billion dollars–about $650 million in 1997 dollars.

That’s a third of a million dollars for each of Devco’s 1,900 employees. The horror will continue when Devco releases its annual report for 1997-98, a particularly bad year for the corporation because of mine problems.

What do we get for this princely sum–a less competitive, dirtier province. Energy costs are one of the most important factors in economic development. Yet, Devco so overcharged for its coal “the president of the Nova Scotia Power Corporation and the president of Devco would not even talk to each other,” according to testimony before the Senate committee studying Devco in 1996.

The result: Nova Scotia has the highest electricity costs in Canada. This is a huge hidden subsidy paid by all Nova Scotians and Nova Scotian businesses. NSPC’s annual report simply notes the hope that Devco might bring its coal prices down to world levels by, say, the year 2,000.

For this we’ve dirtied our province and sent toxic chemicals out over the Atlantic. Now Nova Scotia refuses to sign an anti-pollution agreement on mercury emissions in order to protect Devco. US negotiators were amazed and horrified. “It never occurred to me that Atlantic Canada was captured by its coal interests,” said one senior US official.

Premier MacLellan stepped in with the most distressing statement I have ever heard from a Nova Scotian leader. “Much of our problem in Atlantic Canada comes from mercury emissions in the United States. We can devastate the coal mining industry and still have these emissions from the United States. So how much further ahead would we be?”

So, it doesn’t matter we pollute ourselves and the ocean. What do we say when US coal interests echo MacLellan’s sentiments? “Our pollution isn’t falling on us. We could devastate our US coal industry and how much further ahead would we be?”

Premier MacLellan’s statement is a recipe for global disaster. Each of us suffers little for the pollution we or our company produce. We suffer from pollution produced by the many others. Let’s hope the rest of the world doesn’t pick up Premier MacLellan’s remarkable excuse for inaction. Otherwise each country and company will say–as did our Premier–why should we cut back?

Our neighbours will remember Nova Scotia’s remarkable and sad stance when we want to talk other deals, be they trade or environmental.

Let’s not forget the damage in our own backyard. The mining industry has done “unconscionable harm to the Cape Breton ecology,” says Tom Adams, executive director of the Toronto-based Energy Probe, “the tailings pile and the leachate, the coking emissions, the P. A. H. residues.” Poly aromatic hydrocarbons are from the friendly benzene family of chemicals which includes PCBs and dioxins.

New Brunswick faces similar problems with its coal industry in Minto, but on a much smaller scale than Nova Scotia. The Minto mine drains away less of New Brunswick’s economic life and did not prevent the province from supporting the mercury emissions treaty. Nonetheless, the loss of such an uneconomical industry promotes a stronger growth in the long run.

Back in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher attacked British coal subsidies. Like Nova Scotia, Britain was hobbled by high energy costs and pollution. Yet, the coal industry employed hundreds of thousands and unemployment was excessive.

What was the cost of letting an outmoded industry go while freeing the rest of the economy for modernization? Only a few thousand are now employed in coal mining. But, unemployment has tumbled to about five per cent, and anyone seeking a job can find one. More people work in graphic arts than the coal industry at its peak.

Tourists to London are often amazed–not by the London fog–but by the absence of fog. London fog was lesser part fog and greater part pollution, and pollution has been dramatically reduced.

Letting Devco go won’t be cheap. Since 1992, Devco’s losses are mainly a result of past obligations, such as pension payments. Today, we continue to pile up obligations the next generation will have to pay. If we allow the coal industry to die, we have a further obligation to miners who are not equipped to seek another career. Lifetime remuneration would be cheaper than continuing down the present road.

We must stop before we trap another generation into dead-end, unhealthy, dangerous employment, before we sink more money into this pit and pile up yet more obligations.