Big Donkin news de­liv­ered softly

Cape Breton Post - - Comment -

That cosy lit­tle town hall meet­ing at the Donkin fire hall Wed­nes­day night was quite a con­trast to the gov­ern­ment megapro­ject an­nounce­ments Cape Bre­ton­ers wit­nessed in a pre­vi­ous life. If that had been gov­ern­ment an­nounc­ing a $300-mil­lion un­der­sea coal mine there would have been politi­cians no one knew were still alive and enough glossy fold­ers for a bon­fire.

But all we got was the un­der­stated news that af­ter sev­eral years of ground­work and study, with the ex­pen­di­ture of some $20 mil­lion, the joint ven­ture to open the Donkin coal mine has found a way for­ward. Xs­trata Coal’s for­mal an­nounce­ment was just one page (about 200 words), and the com­ment is­sued by Dart­mouth-based part­ner Er­dene Re­source De­vel­op­ment Corp. didn’t say much more.

De­spite the scarcity of grip-and-grin photo-ops, how­ever, this is ma­jor news for the Donkin area and for this re­gion of Cape Bre­ton. The plan for the 2.75 mil­lion tonne per year mine projects 200 jobs, mostly un­der­ground, which isn’t many in com­par­i­son to past boom times when the mines em­ployed thou­sands.

It may strike some as an ex­ag­ger­a­tion when Xs­trata Coal’s chief de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer, Jeff Ger­ard, sug­gests the job spin-off will be as big as a thou­sand. But those who re­mem­ber how per­va­sive the in­flu­ence Cape Bre­ton’s heavy in­dus­try was in the re­gional econ­omy of the last cen­tury have an idea what the im­pact from such an op­er­a­tion can be. In Ger­ard’s view the project will re-es­tab­lish a life­style “more akin to the life­style that used to be here,” though it can­not be on the re­gion-wide scale that Devco pro­duced in its hey­day.

The big sur­prise Wed­nes­day was the change in fo­cus from the ther­mal coal mar­ket to met­al­lur­gi­cal. The pub­lic fix­a­tion on ther­mal coal was due partly to the ques­tion of whether Nova Sco­tia Power with its gen­er­at­ing plants would pro­vide a lo­cal mar­ket for Donkin, but his­tory re­minds us that higher-value met­al­lur­gi­cal coal ex­port was at times a Devco pur­suit as well, with mixed re­sults.

Donkin coal is of­ten de­scribed as dirty, pri­mar­ily be­cause of its high sul­phur con­tent and mer­cury which make it unattrac­tive for coal-fired elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion in pro­gres­sive ju­ris­dic­tions (and yes, that in­cludes Nova Sco­tia and Canada) that have been work­ing for decades to re­duce acid rain and other well es­tab­lished en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts from coal, re­gard­less of cli­mate change con­cerns. But the largely over­looked prop­erty of Donkin coal is its high ther­mal value: it burns very hot, mak­ing it ex­cel­lent for steel-mak­ing and sim­i­lar in­dus­trial uses.

In terms of lo­cal im­pact the changes that mat­ter are aban­don­ment of the plan to trans­port coal over­land ( first by road, later by rail) to Syd­ney for load­ing on big ships. There are pluses and mi­nuses in that. One mi­nus is that the change robs the plan for Syd­ney har­bour chan­nel dredg­ing of some of its ur­gency just when the push is one to se­cure gov­ern­ment fund­ing to do it.

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