Government can’t fill this bottomless pit.
by Don Cayo



You’ve no doubt heard the story: A whole bunch of Atlantic Canadians are thrown out of work, they land down on their luck, and Ottawa offers mere token aid. Again.

No, this isn’t about fish. And it’s not about hog farms, nor civil service jobs, nor EI. The current bleat-of-the-week down here concerns Cape Breton coal.

After decades of sinking tonnes of money into bottomless pits that extend miles beneath the land and the sea, the feds refuse to shovel in any more. So 1,200 miners will have to stop shoveling out the coal.

A few miners may be kept on — not nearly so many as there are now — if buyers can be found for a couple of the least dangerous mines that have the most accessible coal. But with Cape Breton coal mining productivity — the tonnage produced per miner — a small fraction of what it is in, say, Alberta, and with the quality of the coal rock-bottom low — finding a buyer might be quite a trick.

Not to mention that the mines haven’t yielded a profit within living memory. And there is no end is sight to the billions in losses.

So far this decade, for example, the Crown corporation that operates the mines has lost $800 million — or $50,000 a year for each of its nearly 2,000 employees.

And there are other costs not seen on a bean-counter’s balance sheet.

These mines are dangerous, for one thing. Not only is there an ever-present danger of explosion or collapse in these deep underground (and under-water) tunnels, there’s also the reality of lung disease that has cut short the retirement of hundreds, maybe thousands, of ex-miners.

There’s pollution from the dirty coal, which gives off noxious gases when it’s burned.

And then — as is so often the case when politicians meddle in business — there’s a large and hidden subsidy. It’s in the form of a contract to sell quite a lot of the mines’ lowest grade coal to Nova Scotia Power at a price twice what it costs to import something better. So Nova Scotians not only pay tax, along with every other Canadian, to pay for the miners’ privilege of gunking up the environment and working themselves to death. We also pay again on our inflated light bills.

That kind of stuff is never mentioned in the breathless news reports of nose-to-nose confrontations between the miners and the premier, or in the angry denunciations of other officials who don’t deign — or don’t dare — to go to Cape Breton. But you might be astonished how widely it’s reflected in the discussion taking place down here. Grandstanding for the TV cameras from away is one thing. But, whether from the left, the right or the centre, I’d venture to say that the majority opinion in most of Nova Scotia is the sad recognition of how much we’ve squandered and/or that it just can’t go on.

But when it comes “negotiating” a settlement — and that’s what these media-driven histrionics are really about — consensus is more elusive. Ottawa’s initial offer is $179 million — $60 million in early retirement incentives for about half the displaced miners, $46 million in severance and $5 million for training of the other half, and $68 million for economic development.

Plenty of voices clamour that it’s not enough — we see little disagreement there. But how much would be enough? And how to spend it? The miners want more for pensions and severance, the economic developers want more to spin their hype, the environmentalists want more to clean up the mess that was a century in the building, even small businesses reckon they’re due compensation for what they expect to lose in sales to the mines and the miners.

There is no way to make everyone happy. But there is a way to get better bang for the very big bucks already committed to compensate for closing the mines. If the federal government was smart — and I see too little evidence that it is — it would learn a lesson from the disastrous TAGS program it implemented and then extended after the collapse of East Coast groundfish stocks in 1991.

TAGS, like the proposed coal package, had a lot of money for training and development. Rather littler of it was spent as intended, and what was got, for the most part, dreadful results.

It would be far better to take the $68 million ear-marked for vague, airy-fairy spending, and the $5 million designated for training and use it all to sweeten the severance packages — just as, as is so clear with 20/20 hindsight, should have been done with TAGS. This would leave each individual with a sizable chunk of change — probably about $200,000, as those of pension age are already well taken care of. Some might use it to train for new jobs, some to bridge their income till retirement, some to move away, some to start new businesses. But, no matter how it’s spent, it’s almost certain to buy more of lasting value than the government has ever been able to deliver to Cape Breton.