By Tim Kalinowski on February 2, 2021.
Coal mine workers in Alberta say they understand the need to balance environmental concerns about their industry with the financial benefits derived from the product they produce.
“We have been clear on this: mining yes, but not everywhere, everytime,” says United Steelworkers Western Canadian director Stephen Hunt, whose union represents miners at the Wabaman Highvale mine. “You also have to balance the interests of the broader public that are affected by mining. That is something we consider as well, and we think we are responsible in that (as an industry). If you can’t do it safely, and you can’t protect the people who are downstream, then maybe you shouldn’t mine there. With the technologies we have today, I don’t see a reason why we should be contaminating anybody’s water source.”
It also helps if you have union members working in those mines holding the corporations to account, says United Mine Workers of America Canada international auditor and teller Jody Dukart. UMWA Canada represents coal workers at the Teck Mine in Cardinal River and CST Coal Canada Ltd. mine in Grande Cache.
“At any mine we do organize, our members live in those communities, their kids go to school in those communities, and they raise families in those communities,” Dukart says. “Everybody works together because they don’t want to see the place left behind and degraded. It goes hand-in-hand.
“Part of the mine workers’ policy in Canada here is we don’t just go in to represent the workers. Our workers are from the community, and they have families in the community. We spend numerous hours working with residents and governments to hold these mines accountable for reclaim purposes.
“If you don’t have a union in there to do that then that is where things fall apart,” he adds.
“No one has a voice at the table with these big coal companies.”
Hunt says the benefits of coal mining are clear if the mining is done by a responsible company backed by good government policy which is enforced rigorously at the mine site.
“These are family-supporting jobs,” he states. “They are decent jobs. They pay well. They support communities, and they support our society. Some people don’t like coalmining, and I do understand that, but that is how we have alternatives. The world is still going to consume coal, and our position is if we can do it safer than, for example, China, and we can do it cleaner – let’s do it. One day coal will be replaced (as a fuel source), but not today.”
“Obviously coal mining is a dirty business even when the pay is good and it builds communities,” agrees Dukart. “You have to look at all those aspects together, and there are lots of options to make coal viable and clean. If everybody works together, I think it could all come together and make it work.
“Everybody’s talking about renewables,” he states, “but if you really look into renewables they need the coal to produce the renewables. If you phase it out, it is going to be tougher to build the renewables.”
Hunt gives an example to illustrate this point.
“Every windmill takes 60 tonnes of steel, and in order to make steel you have to burn coal,” he explains. “You can’t have it both ways. To make solar panel, you need minerals. You want a cell phone, you need minerals. We have to get them from somewhere, and if you drive your electric car it usually has cobalt in it. That’s currently mined mostly in the world by children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All of this stuff is connected, and our world is quite small right now.”
Hunt acknowledges coal might be phased out in the future even while being needed to help with the transition to a green energy economy today. If those green industry jobs were created in tandem with opening a few new opportunities for the metallurgical side of the coal industry, he says, it might give coal workers a place to go as their thermal coal jobs are phased out.
“We can do more than just say, ‘We are greening the economy,’ and actually do something about it,” states Hunt, “and that would create employment. But that would also require government to actually govern. If you started with every provincial government building, and said we’re going to retrofit it and put solar panels on the roof, or reinsulate it, or look for electric vehicles as an alternative– there’s a good start other than actually saying we’re going to stop this, or hope we are going to start this.
“Alberta is a case study in resource industries nobody likes,” he says. “When you base a vast majority of your economy on resources, it seems to me a government should start to govern, and anticipate there are going to be some issues, and some hard issues. They get elected to govern, and now they got to do it.”
Dukart agrees coal miners and coalmining communities need more options which set them up for continued success, and in the longer term it might be green energy. But in nearer term, he believes, metallurgical coal, if mined responsibly, would allow for a direct transference of skills from the thermal coal side into that greener future.
“The impact (on the community) of losing a coal mine is phenomenal,” he says. “For every coal job we have at the mine, it produces eight other jobs in the community. That might be a supplier for bringing materials out to the mine in town to a healthcare worker. It impacts the community big-time.”
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Note: This article has been edited to reflect that one coal job produces eight other jobs in the community, and not 800 as originally stated.