Big Donkin news delivered softly
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.