Disaster Averted?

Adding to the general feeling that the world as we know it is coming to an end — and that that’s not necessarily a bad thing — the owners of the Donkin Mine announced on Tuesday they were ending production permanently and putting the mine on “care and maintenance” due to “adverse geological conditions.”

The initial announcement came in a press release from Morien Resources Corp, the Halifax-based “dividend paying, mining development company that holds royalty interests in two tidewater accessed projects” (Donkin and the Black Point Aggregate Project). Morien’s management team, in case you were worried, “exercises ruthless discipline in managing both the assets and the liabilities of the Company.”

Coal pile at Donkin Mine.

Source: Morien Resources

The job of speaking to the local media — which used to fall to Donkin Mine VP Shannon Campbell — has been delegated to Halifax-based Paul McEachern, vice president of “strategy” at M5 Public Affairs, “Atlantic Canada’s foremost public affairs firm.”

McEachern’s CV — like that of every good PR person — includes both a stint as a journalist (political reporter for CHUM Ltd) and stints in government, including director of Communications Nova Scotia from (1993-2000) and “Special Projects Executive-Upstream” for the Nova Scotia Department of Energy (2014-2015).

He has never before, to my knowledge, been the spokesperson for Kameron Collieries, the wholly owned subsidiary of the US-based Cline Group which operates Donkin.

 

Free fall

Everything I know about PR firms I’ve learned from television, but my understanding is that they help you “craft” your message, “spin” the facts and “take control of the narrative” in unpleasant corporate moments. They could, for example, help you decide — in the middle of a global pandemic that is hitting the already-declining coal industry so hard Moody’s Investors Services is calling for bankruptcies and closures and the industry’s chief lobbying group in the US has asked the government for $800 million in relief — to blame the Donkin closure on the mine’s geology.

If you think about this for just a moment it will strike you that the geology of the mine is the constant in this equation — the geology of the mine has been studied extensively and the infrastructure needed to prevent roof falls (the ostensible cause of the closure) is well understood, as demonstrated in a recent letter to the Spectator from Steve Drake.

If the geology of the mine didn’t stop production after the first, or fifth, or eighth or twelfth roof fall, why would we believe the geology of the mine is to blame now?

No, the factor that’s changed, in my humble opinion, is the coronavirus pandemic. That relief package the industry requested from the US government? The one that included the suspension of an excise tax that funds benefits to miners with black lung disease, a condition that is on the rise again in the US and that could make miners who have it more susceptible to the coronavirus? It was turned down by the US government this past Friday.

As the Louisville, Kentucky Courier Journal noted:

The coal industry, which has been in a free fall in Kentucky and nationally, was left out of a $2.2 trillion bill passed by lawmakers and signed by President Trump Friday that seeks to rescue the country from the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic

Most of the coal produced in the US is used to generate electricity but demand for electricity has dropped so significantly due to the COVID-19 shutdown that experts say you could safely shut down 25% of the grid (the portion supplied by coal).  Moreover, Moody’s says coal companies will have difficulty accessing capital to see them through the crisis because lenders are becoming less willing to support them for environmental, social and governance (ESG) reasons. Throw in a drop in oil and natural gas prices that has made coal — for the first time — the most expensive fossil fuel in the US and you can see why the Donkin Mine closure would likely have happened even if it were the most exploitation-friendly mine in North America.

Why blame the closure on geology instead of the pandemic? If I knew the answer to that I’d probably be in PR, but it might simply be an attempt — that costs Kameron Collieries nothing — to look like a company that is actually concerned about worker safety. Or it might be an attempt to look like a company whose industry is not in “free fall.”

Whatever the reason behind it, it must be having negative consequences for workers — it means they cannot access government supports that have been made available to those who have lost employment due to the pandemic.

 

Jobs

The Cape Breton Post put the number of jobs lost as a result of the Donkin closure at an “an estimated 150″ in a story that also quotes McEachern — the spokesperson for Kameron, remember — saying he “didn’t have an exact total of staff employed there” but put it at “‘north of 100.'”

(Claiming Kameron doesn’t know how many people it employed at Donkin is effectively representing the owners as innumerate at best, morons at worst, either of which is an interesting way of “controlling the narrative.”)

Paul Carrigan, chair of the Donkin mine community liaison committee (who called the decision “completely unexpected,” which suggests Kameron wasn’t doing much liaising with the community) put the job number at 140.

Aerial view Donkin Coal Mine

Aerial view, Donkin Mine. (Source: Morien Resources)

The company has always been coy about how many people it actually employed — and equally coy about how many of its employees were actually locals.

Remember back in 2018 when the Post reported that Kameron was building homes for its managers on land near Blackett’s Lake? At the time of publishing, there were nine lots and four completed homes. As I noted then, there would surely be no need to build homes for locals.

And remember that same year when we discovered Kameron was paying some US employees more than double the wages initially offered to Canadians? At that point, Shannon Campbell said about 80% of the workforce was Canadians and 20% Americans who “help train employees.”

But the CBC story cited above also noted that the company had laid off 49 workers in 2017 (a move that was generally seen as heading off the formation of a union) and had then hired more, bringing the total employed to “more than 100.”

Basically, we don’t know how many local jobs were lost and we need to know this to actually evaluate the damage this represents to the local economy.

We should also be asking what we’re going to do with that $1.6 million coal road we built for Kameron. I wonder if they’ll figure out a way to take it with them?

But most all, we need to ask why this company, and its government enablers, were encouraging men to work in a mine they are now — almost — acknowledging was dangerous.

Of course, they’re not flat-out saying it was dangerous or raising worker safety as an issue, they’re simply citing what McEachern termed the “very, very challenging geology” of the mine (which will not be sealed — or sold — but will be maintained by a small staff who will keep it ventilated and dewatered).

But that “very, very challenging geology” made it dangerous.

I know those who’ve lost their jobs will not see it this way, but a community that has witnessed more than its share of mining disasters could not be blamed for heaving a sigh of relief right about now.