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Cape Breton's underground coal mining resumes 15 years after mine closures

Underground coal mining has resumed in Cape Breton, more than 15 years after the fossil fuel was last cut from a rock face beneath the island.

Kameron Coal Management Ltd., a subsidiary of U.S. mining giant Cline Group, confirmed Wednesday that 64 employees and contractors have been extracting coal from the Donkin site since Monday night.

“Coal is being produced once again in Cape Breton,” Cline CEO Paul Vining said in a statement, adding that the resource represents “some of the highest quality thermal and metallurgical coal in the world.”

It was a historic moment: Although dormant for nearly a generation, the local industry dates back to the early 1700s, when the French needed coal for their nearby fortress. Coal mining has long been considered a way of life on the island.

The Donkin mine has two shafts about eight metres wide that extend almost four kilometres under the Atlantic Ocean, starting from a location about 30 kilometres east of Sydney.

The project has been criticized by environmental groups as potentially adding to Canada’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, and running against the trend in other jurisdictions that are eliminating coal-fired plants.

The company said it is planning to gradually ramp up production as a privately owned road is built to carry the coal to the port of Sydney for export.

As well, local officials say the company is still negotiating with privately owned electric utility Nova Scotia Power, which operates three coal-fired generating stations in the province _ two of them in Cape Breton.

Nova Scotia Power issued a statement Wednesday saying it will be working with Donkin’s management to find a way to use the coal in their plants, but the utility stressed that testing will take some time.

As well, the company said the fuel must meet emissions requirements, comply with federal-provincial agreements on carbon reduction and be made available at a reasonable price.

“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, a subsidiary of Halifax-based Emera Inc., 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.”

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.

Alberta has announced plans to gradually phase out its coal-fired power plants, though not for a number of years.

The Alberta government has said it wants to put an end to coal power by 2030, while Nova Scotia’s Liberal government has said coal will likely play a role in the province’s electricity system until at least 2042.

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).