Last time in Sustainable City, human rights and environmental activists took on three multinational mining companies and Nova Scotia Power in a war of words.
But Margaret Murphy, spokesperson for Nova Scotia Power, won't comment on the controversial forced relocation of 700 villagers by Cerrejon mine in Colombia, from which our province imported about about 41 percent of our coal this year. She doesn't say whether NSP considers this practice when selecting its coal suppliers.
Instead, she refers me to a 48-page report entitled Cerrejon Coal and Social Responsibility: An Independent Review of Impacts and Intent. The report was commissioned by the owners of Cerrejon. Its lead author is John Harker, president of Cape Breton University.
Murphy says that the report vindicates the practices of Cerrejon's owners and that the mining companies are following the recommendations in the report. But Chris Arsenault, a Phil Lind Fellow at the University of British Columbia, who visited the mine as a journalist, disagrees.
"That's simply crazy," says Arsenault. "The people who work at the mine might have good employment, but what UCB found in their report makes it clear that the company didn't follow proper protocol in the land acquisition process."
I found a copy of the report on the Nova Scotia Policy Review website (policyreview.ca), courtesy of editor Rachel Brighton. "The report was very carefully written," she says. "But in my reading there was an environmental problem---the pollution of water supplies---and it implies that the mining companies are currently not credible and transparent."
Harker writes that mining in Colombia has a "poor reputation, often deserved," and that the communities around the mine "have found it difficult to maintain past activities or develop new ones during the time in which Cerrejon has been in operation." His team found little public confidence in the credibility of the mine's emissions monitoring program, and he writes that "the Union complains that the company minimizes the number of incidents of dust-related diseases...these are also heard in the communities surrounding the mine."
Harker adds that the families of Tabaco have been left "divided and bitter...waiting for financial compensation as well as believing that a new community will be developed." He recommends that Cerrejon compensate the families, plus interest and inflation and "fashion a new approach which does emphasize clear consultation and negotiation practices and strategies."
This, says Arsenault, is precisely what mining companies want to avoid. " could be replaced for just one- or two-million dollars," he says. By contrast, the mine, owned by multinational giants BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Xstrata, reported $1.5 billion revenue in 2007. "They spend more on public relations than on addressing this issue because they don't want to set a precedent," says Arsenault.
Brighton says that some responsibility for that inaction should fall to the buyers of the Cerrejon coal. "If we're concerned with mining here we should be equally concerned for Colombia," she says. She calls for more transparency by Nova Scotia Power, saying the company has never proven that its coal is blood-free or sustainable.
According to the Harker report, the lack of transparency goes all the way down to the source. "An effort should be made by Cerrejon to ensure that all stakeholders, from the local, to the national and international, better understand what the company is trying to do and how it goes about it," writes Harker.
Arsenault goes further, saying that, as a Cerrejon buyer, NSP should publicly demand better practices by the mine. "New Brunswick Power wrote a simple letter to mine owners about negotiating with the former residents," he says. "NS Power could just come out and say, 'people lost land because of our fuel; please negotiate giving land back to them.'" He also argues for prioritizing Canadian fuel sources until renewable fuels are more widely available. "Shipping coal across the ocean intrinsically doesn't make sense," he says.
NSP counters that it is practising due diligence, ensuring we purchase the lowest emitting, highest quality, most affordable options from reputable companies meeting international labour and safety standards. Land acquisitions, community relocations and shipping are, according to Murphy, beyond the company's scope of responsibility.
"Mining practices are the purview of the companies that are mining and transporting coal," she says. "The industry standard is that our footprint is based on our own activities, not that of shipping companies."
Murphy says that NSP has taken numerous steps to reduce its dependence on coal, including investments in wind power, tidal power, waste heat recovery and consumer conservation programs and has even considered importing nuclear power from New Brunswick. As a result, the company hasn't built a new coal facility since 1992, despite an increased consumption of two percent per year.
Even with NSP's best efforts, she says, our coal dependence isn't going away any time soon. "Transformation is not something that occurs in a year. We recognize the need for change, but it's not something you can just switch on or off."