Letter to the Editor: Donkin Mine Saga Continues

I began my mining career in 1977 and have been an eye witness to the Donkin saga since the day Pierre Elliot Trudeau announced his National Energy Program (NEP) in the 1980s. The NEP earmarked $2 billion dollars for expansion of the Cape Breton coal industry and Donkin Mine was trumpeted as a Canadian “Super Mine.” Years later, I watched in disgust as the Mulroney government allowed Devco to flood the two Donkin tunnels in 1992. I was outraged when the Chrétien government endorsed the sale of Donkin Mine for a loonie just a few months before the 1997 federal election.

If nothing else, the political saga of Donkin Mine has kept me somewhat amused over the years.

This week, I watched the saga continue, not with amusement, but with sadness, as the Super Mine was laid to rest on 30 March 2020. I wondered if it was green or red kryptonite (or something even more deadly) that put the final nail in the coffin. Nope. According to a spokesperson for Kameron Collieries– it was just geology. Really?

My first thought was who would walk away from an investment approaching $300 million dollars in taxpayer and private monies just because the roof-bolting idea failed so badly? My second thought was what would my father, grandfathers and coal miner buddies say in such a situation? I think it would go something like this:

You must be kidding! We got roof problems? Figure it out. Get ‘er done and let’s cut coal.

Coal Miners, Princess Mine, Cape Breton, NS

Coal Miners, Princess Mine, Cape Breton, NS, 1979. (Photo by Owen Fitzgerald, Beaton Institute, Coal Workers: 84-427-14527)


It is beyond dispute that Lingan and Prince mines both succeeded in rethinking their roof-bolting problems and, despite similar geology to the Donkin Mine, operated successfully for decades. In Glace Bay alone, there were a dozen or more coal mines operating on various seams in the same geology as Donkin — Number 26, 1A and 1B are three prime examples. Tough geology but long-term coal producing operations that broke world records by employing solid steel rails and common sense to safely control the geologic problems associated with submarine coal mining.

I find it unimaginable that Kameron Collieries cannot implement a ground control system modeled after the proven systems used by generations of Cape Breton coal miners to tame the forces of Mother Nature. As a fourth-generation coal miner, my gut tells me they could – they just decided not to.

After I watched and read the Kameron Collieries news stories, my thoughts drifted off to the Princess Mine, where Cape Breton coal miners produced coal for 100 years while the Donkin Mine had barely stumbled through three years of sporadic mining in the same coal field. I was puzzled as to how geology alone could stymie a seasoned American coal company like the Cline Group. So, I did some Googling and learned that a number of US-based coal companies recently hit the brakes and closed operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Not to mention the competitive impact of the plummeting price of a barrel of oil) The article was titled: Pandemic May Be the Final Nail in US Coal Industry Coffin and was published on 30 March 2020, the same day that US-controlled Kameron Collieries announced the closure of Donkin Mine. The article contains stark similarities to the Kameron Collieries announcement.

Then my thoughts raced back to an article I read a few years ago about coal baron Chris Cline’s vast empire which included a coal mine he’d just bought in Nova Scotia – the Donkin Mine. Before his tragic passing, Mr. Cline discussed his long-range vision for Donkin with Forbes Magazine. Here is an excerpt from that article:

Once the mine is rocking and rolling, within ten years it could be generating $500 million in annual revenues and putting $100 million in cash into Cline’s pocket. The reserves are vast enough to last for decades.

I believed Mr. Cline then and I still believe he was right. Although he was aware of the Donkin geology and the probability of bumps in the road ahead – he was undaunted by the challenge.

My final thought before I drifted off to sleep was, what are Cape Bretoners left with at Donkin Mine? A foreign owner is sitting on the last mineable block of coal in the Sydney Coal Basin. That owner is permanently ceasing operations and is refusing to sell the mine to any potential buyer (or competitor). That means that billions of dollars worth of our coal will stay in the ground at the whim of a foreign-owned coal company. It also means that — as Nova Scotia Power just confirmed — they can simply import the lost Donkin supply from some foreign source. Makes perfect sense if you are a foreign coal producer scrambling for a market in tough times.

I will continue to watch the Donkin saga with much skepticism and a jaundiced eye.

Stephen Drake, 4th generation Cape Breton coal miner
New Waterford