Coal industry dealt big blow

Chisholm Pothier
Daily Gleaner
August 20, 2002

As NB Coal dismantles its cutting dragger before it gets shipped to Florida, some people in the Grand Lake area are wondering what happened to a community report on the future of the coal industry in the region.

The Lady of the Lake dragger was sold to a Florida operation for $1 million after sitting idle near Chipman for two years.

The piece of equipment was worth more than that, many people in Minto and Chipman believe, and they worry the provincial government is phasing out the coal operation sooner rather than later.

NB Coal is a Crown corporation, owned by the provincial government.

Although once a thriving industry that employed hundreds of people and shipped its coal out of the province, the coal-mining operation is now down to fewer than 100 employees with only one customer: the NB Power generator at Grand Lake.

The previous Liberal government had unveiled a plan to phase out NB Coal’s operation by 2004.

When the Progressive Conservatives were elected in 1999, they cancelled the plan but also cancelled NB Coal’s contract to supply coal to the Belledune power generator in northern New Brunswick, reducing the coal-mining operation by half.

In place of the Liberal plan, the Tories convened a working committee to make recommendations on the future of NB Coal.

The committee, comprised of residents of the Minto-Chipman area and government representatives, came up with a number of recommendations and submitted a report to Jeannot Volpe, minister of natural resources and energy, some 18 months ago.

There has been no response from the provincial government since then.

Volpe was on vacation this week and unavailable for comment.

People in the community are worried, said Lawrence Wasson, a retired miner and former president of the United Mine Workers local at NB Coal.

There has been no pronouncement from government on the future of the coal industry in the area and the dragger was sold for far less than it’s worth, he said.

The Crown corporation should have got some $7 million or $8 million for the dragger, he said.

But Murray Doherty, who was on the committee studying the industry’s future, said there’s not much demand for draggers, which cut into the coal seam and scoop out the coal, these days. If NB Coal could get anything for the dragger, Doherty said, it might as well have accepted the offer.

Still, Doherty said, he would like to hear the government’s response to the report he worked on.

The committee recommended some upgrades to the Grand Lake power generator to keep it going to 2009 or 2010, rather than 2004, thus allowing NB Coal to operate longer.

The coal found in the Minto-Chipman area is high in sulphur, which, when burnt, contributes to acid rain.

Nobody wants to buy that kind of coal anymore, Doherty said, acknowledging the reality that NB Coal will inevitably be wound down at some point.

But in the meantime, he said, the people in the area would put up with the pollution because the operation still employs a significant number of people.

Doug Tyler, who represented Grand Lake as a Liberal MLA for 12 years, was the Liberal energy minister when the government decided to phase out NB Coal but it also proposed an economic diversification plan.

The Tories fought their campaign in Grand Lake in 1999 on a pledge to keep the coal operation going, Tyler said.

But now the Tories are doing things such as selling the dragger without indicating any plan for the future of the coal industry, without responding to the community report or proposing any kind of economic diversification, he said.

“All the government’s really doing is buying time to get through an election,” Tyler said. “It’s time for the government to say what they’re going to do.”

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