DONKIN, N.S. — Absent for almost a generation, a way of life has returned to Cape Breton.
Underground coal mining, once the backbone of the island's economy, resumed at the Donkin Mine late Monday as the members of A-Crew began cutting the black fossil fuel from a tunnel that extends four kilometres under the Atlantic Ocean.
A photo taken after the first shift shows six burly men, their faces and coveralls coated in soot and grime.
The image captured a moment that was once a common sight along Cape Breton's ragged northeast coast, where coal has been pulled from the surrounding hills for almost 300 years.
"Most Cape Bretoners, a lot of them have coal mining in their blood — and we thought it was finished," said George MacDonald, councillor for nearby Glace Bay, home to the Cape Breton Miners Museum.
"With the mines gone, and the steel plants gone, there was no work here. So people were leaving ... (Now), we're hoping that people will stay. It will provide some jobs and there will be spin-offs."
Kameron Coal Management Ltd., a subsidiary of U.S. mining giant Cline Group, confirmed that 64 employees and contractors are now working at the mine. As production slowly ramps up, the total workforce is expected to climb to 140.
The company declined requests for an interview Wednesday.
MacDonald said up to 300 people could be employed at the mine, which is producing a type of coal used mainly in steel plants and thermal-electric generating stations.
"We've got hundreds of applications," said MacDonald, whose father and grandfather were coal miners. "Everybody and their dog wants to come back here. Even the young people are applying."
When the underground Prince mine in Point Aconi, N.S., closed amid slumping markets in late 2001 — throwing 500 people out of work — it was generally thought that the industry had run its course and would never be revived.
But the demand for coal remains, even though jurisdictions around the world have committed to reducing its use to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
"The reality is that the world needs coal for steelmaking and energy production," said Geoff MacLellan, the cabinet minister who represents Glace Bay in the provincial legislature. "Everyone is aware of the risks of mining, and the environmental realities of fossil fuels. We get the importance of all those factors."
However, MacLellan said that as long as there is demand for coal, the Cline Group will be encouraged to continue mining.
Stephen Thomas, energy campaign co-ordinator for the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre, said selling Nova Scotia coal doesn't make sense, given the worldwide push to deal with climate change.
"It represents a huge step backward for the direction that Nova Scotia is headed in," he said.
While it's true that economically depressed Cape Breton could use the jobs, Thomas said, the fact is that Nova Scotia's green economy is producing far more jobs than the coal industry.
Thomas said France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland have all committed to phasing out coal plants — and China recently announced it will cancel construction of 100 plants.
"They see the writing on the wall," he said.
Ontario made headlines in 2014 when it became one of the first jurisdictions in North America to eliminate coal as a source of electricity generation.
Even energy-rich Alberta has announced plans to gradually phase out its coal-fired power plants, though not until the federal target of 2030.
Nova Scotia's Liberal government has said coal will likely play a role in the province's electricity system until at least 2042, having won an exemption from Ottawa last fall.
The province's privately owned electric utility, Nova Scotia Power, has three coal-fired generating plants — two of them in Cape Breton.
The utility, a subsidiary of Halifax-based Emera Inc., issued a statement Wednesday saying it will be working with Donkin's management to find a way to use the coal, but testing will take some time.
Thomas said it's unlikely Donkin coal will ever be used in the province's generating plants because of its high sulphur content.
"There's been no coal in Nova Scotia that has met their standards for the past 25 years," he said. "The odds don't look so good."
The utility said the fuel must meet emissions requirements, comply with federal-provincial agreements on carbon reduction and be cost effective.
"Using reliable and economic sources of domestic coal is beneficial to the local economy and to our customers," the utility said. "Purchasing local coal displaces foreign coal and keeps fuel dollars in the Nova Scotia economy."
Nova Scotia Power said it has reduced its use of coal by 31 per cent since 2005, and it plans to continue using less coal and more renewable energy.
"While we continue to reduce our use of coal, we need to continue to use our coal-fired plants to back up intermittent wind energy and ensure stable electricity supply to Nova Scotians," the company said. "From there we will develop a plan with the owners for introducing the coal to our Lingan generating facility."
The Donkin mine was acquired by Cline Group in December 2014 after the U.S. mining giant purchased a 75 per cent majority stake in the operation from Glencore Xstrata and a 25 per cent interest from Morien Resources Corp. (TSX:MOX).
— By Michael MacDonald and Michael Tutton in Halifax
The Canadian Press