HALIFAX (7 December 2006) - ITS A SIGN one fleetingly passes on the Trans-Canada Highway 105 to and from the city of Sydney without ever really knowing where it is, where it leads to, or its story: Exit 17 and Nova Scotia Highway 162.

Its a lighthouse on Cape Breton Island's Atlantic coast that seafarers set their course by. Its a sea-swept rocky point that defines the north-eastern reach of one island astride another island and overlooking a third, Aconi Island, always breathtakingly lovely, its steep cliffs falling into the sea. And Highway 162 is one of those highways to nowhere you can find in different isolated regions of the Nova Scotia. It was built for one reason only - to expedite the traffic of huge trucks carrying coal imported from a multinational strip mine in northern Colombia to the Point Aconi power generating station of Nova Scotia Power. (1)

Point Aconi itself sits on the north-eastern end of Boularderie Island - a long narrow strip of land that runs 40 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean south into the salty Bras d'Or Lake, a 640-square-kilometre inland sea that almost splits Cape Breton Island. The Atlantic comes and goes on both sides of Bouladerie Island. It's flanked on the west by the Great Bras d'Or Channel, and St. Andrew's and Little Bras d'Or Channels on the east. The island is heavily forested but, with several large dairy, vegetable and horticultural farms, is rich in agricultural potential. On Point Aconi's beach 300-million-year-old fossils have been recovered by a local museum. The island is known to the Mi'Kmaq as Mukulaqatik but takes its name from an obscure French colonizer to whom the French King granted the island and the adjacent eastern shore of the La Petit Brasdor in the early 1700s.

Today it is becoming synonymous with coal. And that highway to nowhere will be trafficked by more huge trucks, transporting coal off the island.

Miners descending into mine, Number 12 Colliery, New Waterford, 1966
Coal mining has deep roots under much of northeastern Cape Breton Island. There are records of French soldiers digging for coal as far back as the late 1600s, and a site of a 1720 French coal near Port Morien, just north of Louisbourg, is said to be the first in North America. The first lieutenant-governor of Īle Royale (Cape Breton), J.F.W. DesBarres, saw coal as an "inexhaustible source of revenue" in the 1780s. Full-scale mining operations began in the 1850s and large-scale production by a British corporation from coal mines stretching under the floor of the Atlantic reached its peak in the 1940s before setting into a slow decline. Hundreds of miners were affected by brown lung disease and killed in explosions. Many bootleg coal pits the size of pickup trucks still exist on Boularderie Island after generations of use.

Coal is no longer King on Cape Breton, but the wealth of its bituminous seams constantly invite speculators from afar. They seek to capture its riches by strip mining the island's surface. This avoids many of the risks for capital that underground mining has entailed. However, governments throughout North America have allowed strip mining to proceed without any guarantees from corporations to restore the environment.

This time Cape Bretoners are saying no to coal and yes to preserving and strengthening their water supplies, farms, wildlife and forests from the various threats to this ecosystem. They are fighting the proposed development of a strip mine near Point Aconi. It is one of a potential thirteen sites on Cape Breton earmarked for strip mining by the provincial government, although a three-year moratorium has been declared on the other twelve. The government's decision to allow exploitation to go ahead on Boularderie Island has angered local residents who are afraid that the area's eco-system, to which their livelihoods are closely tied, will be irreparably damaged.

"We're not going to be squandering future generations' ecological capital and human capital," says Albert Marshall, a Mi'kmaq elder from Eskasoni First Nation on the Bras d'Or Lakes

On November 17th the Environment Minister, Mark Parent, dismissed two appeals from residents asking for an injunction to stop development from going forward.

"The project met the requirements of the Environment Act," says Bill Turpin, Director of communications with the Ministry. Turpin says the Ministry only acts as a regulatory agency that deals with environmental assessments.

The dismissal is the latest setback in a two-year battle between area residents and Pioneer Coal Limited, a subsidiary of Nova Construction Company Limited, an Antigonish corporation owned by John Chisholm. Pioneer wants to remove 1.6 million tonnes of coal from the site over the next seven years.

Local residents and the activist group Citizens Against Strip Mining have staged many protests at the proposed mine site, at times clashing with Pioneer employees. Despite support from local politicians at both the provincial and federal level, development of the site is moving forward.

Mi'kmaq elders from the region, including Marshall, decided to support Citizens Against Strip Mining in June. Marshall is proud that the Eskasoni First Nation is able to work with the residents of Point Aconi to reach a common objective. He says that too often issues like industrial development of an area pit First Nations bands and other local residents against each other.

Neither Pioneer Coal nor the provincial government consulted the Eskasoni First Nation during the environmental assessment process. Marshall says legal precedents dating back to 1995 require consultation with the Eskasoni on any development that could compromise the environment and the Mi'Kmaq way of life in the area.

Marshall and members of Citizens Against Strip Mining say strip-mining in the region will irreversibly damage the region's water supply.

Donna Stubbert, a member of Citizens Against Strip Mines speaks passionately about her fears for Point Aconi if the mine is developed. A resident of Point Aconi for 24 years, Stubbert says that strip-mining in the 1980s (by Novaco Ltd., then a wholly-owned subsidiary of Nova Scotia Resources Limited, a provincial crown corporation) drastically altered the ground water supply in the area. The resurgence of mining interests has many locals worried about dried up wells contaminated with acid mine drainage.

Strip mine at Little Pond
Stubbert says farming in the region accounts for seven million dollars annually and damages to the region's water supply could be detrimental to the industry. Strip mining in a wetland requires draining millions of gallons of water from the surrounding area. Boularderie also supplies water to the Upper and Lower Morien aquifer. She also worries that an eyesore like a strip mine will effect tourism in the area.

"There is so much at risk here," she says.

The Ministry of Natural Resources disagrees with residents. Don Jones, director of the ministry's Mineral Management Division, says the claim is "completely without any foundation whatsoever." He says there is no scientific proof that strip-mining will effect the water supply without clarifying whether or not the Point Aconi situation had been specifically investigated for possible consequences to groundwater supplies.

Jones, a civil servant, is quick to criticize Citizens Against Strip Mining's campaign, but offered little in the way of a counter argument.

Jones believes that the residents involved with Citizens Against Strip Mining are "effecting a fair manipulation of the media." He says they are presenting a one-sided view, but did not provide any concrete examples as to how.

"They're launching every [media] venue they can get a word out to," says Jones. "There are a large number [of residents] who don't mind, but are very quiet."

Pioneer's lease includes the 85 hectares of the existing Prince Mine site, plus 210 hectares of forest area and 18 hectares of wetlands, an area four times the size of Point Pleasant Park in Halifax.

Government approval of the lease includes more than 50 conditions that Pioneer must meet in order to protect the environment of the area. Among the conditions is a provision that Pioneer must clean up any environmental contamination at the site and in surrounding areas when the mine is closed. But "conditions" are not guarantees. it took decades to clean up and reclaim the hazardous 200-acre surface land site along the ocean front of the town Inverness in western Cape Breton after coal mining closed.

A similar provision was included for Pioneer's strip mine in Stellarton. Jones says Pioneer carried out the remediation process there effectively. However, when Stubbert and other members of Citizens Against Strip Mining visited the site they were appalled by what poor conditions the landscape was left in.

"It looks like they threw straw on the hill," she says, referring to the haphazard way grass grows on the site.

"There's no way in which you can do a sustainable strip-mine," says Marshall.

Pioneer says the mine will generate seven million dollars over the span of its seven-year-lease and create 50 jobs for the area. But the coal from the site is considered too dirty for Nova Scotia Power to use because it contains high amounts of sulfur and ash. Coal will still be imported from as far away as South America to meet the province's energy needs.

Those opposed to the mine don't see any benefit for the area or the province. Both Stubbert and Marshall believe that the economic activity generated by the mine will be offset by the damage it will do to the local farming, tourist and fishing industries.

These threats arise from the lack of control by people over government. As a result, they say they cannot exercise control over their natural and social environment and are asking whose interest is sovereign.

"We have all these departments working against us," says Stubbert. "It's politicians looking after big business. They don't care about the little guy."

John Chisholm's Nova Construction donated $7,500 in two donations to premier Rodney MacDonald's leadership campaign, his largest corporate donor.

"Money is the only ultimate end the bureaucrats and politicians answer to," says Marshall. "The legacies they're leaving behind, one has to be totally blind to the degradation."

Who is King of Cape Breton Island now?


(1) Globalization gone horribly wrong

The mine began as a joint venture between the Colombian government and Exxon Corporation 25 years ago intended to supply cheap, high-quality coal to North America and Europe. RALPH SURETTE*


* Ian Gormely is an intern with shunpiking magazine and a student in the Department of Journalism at the University of King's College, Halifax.

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