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Coal vs renewable energy in Springhill, Nova Scotia

The Chronicle Herald reports, “The Springhill Coal Mines Ltd., a subsidiary of Nova Construction, has applied to the provincial Department of Natural Resources to excavate three test pits with the goal of examining coal seams for a potential open-pit mining operation.” The mayor of Springhill (a town situated about 180 kilometres north of Halifax) says he doesn’t have a problem with open-pit mining, as long as ‘all environmental conditions are met’.

But concerns are being raised by local residents about dust, the noise from blasting, truck traffic, royalties for the community, whether the jobs would go to locals, and the impact it would have on their source of geothermal power. And though not stated in the article, globally there are major concerns about the greenhouse gas emissions and negative climate impacts of burning coal.

Springhill seems to tell the tale of fossil fuel vs. renewable energy.

Springhill has the capacity to generate geothermal energy – a renewable and sustainable source of energy – because of its underground mine tunnels. The town has “a perfect geothermal scenario created by the old mines in Springhill, a room-and-pillar mining system in which a number of interconnected tunnels are protected by a seam of untouched coal near the surface. Billions of litres of water run through the old tunnels, and water temperature at the deepest part of the mine is about 38 C, falling to about 20 C when it reaches the surface… Industrial and town wells have been dug to extract the warm water and send it back down after it has been used and cooled.” And “This week, Natural Resources Minister Zach Churchill signed a special lease to give the town final provincial approval to open Nova Scotia’s first municipal geothermal program.”

But the strip-mining for coal could destroy this potential by taking out the surface coal and in the process collapsing the tunnels.

In terms of jobs, it is expected the coal mining would “create 30 to 60 jobs over several years”. But there are concerns that given the level of technology used in coal mining, “they’d need the kind of people who would know all about blasting, shooting and that sort of stuff, as well as heavy-equipment operators (so) they’re (not) going to walk down Main Street in Springhill and pick guys off the street.” Meanwhile, local employers like “plastic container manufacturer Ropak Packaging, Surrette Battery and a number of town-owned operations, including the arena, use mine-based geothermal to offset heating and cooling costs.”

And given “the province owns the mineral rights to the coal, and if the jobs aren’t available to Springhill residents, (a resident says) all the town has to gain from a strip mine is a big ugly black hole when it’s finished.”

There have been three separate mining disasters in Springhill. In 1891, an explosion occurred when a fire caused by accumulated coal dust swept through two underground shafts killing 125 miners. In 1956, another explosion happened when several cars of a mine train carrying fine coal dust to the surface broke lose, rolled back and hit a power line igniting the coal dust. 39 people were killed in that incident. And in 1958, an underground earthquake claimed the lives of 74 miners.

In today’s news article, local resident Ralph Ross says, “We have a resource (geothermal) here in Springhill. Over 425 (coal miners’) lives were sacrificed building this resource and I’ll be damned if some company is going to come in and take it away from us. I’m hoping for the support of the people.”

Further reading
Council of Canadians speaks against coal mines
US coal seeks export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, the Gulf of Mexico, and BC