HILLSIDE, NS – Down Boyles Road, on a spit of land his family has inhabited for three generations, Peter Boyles, of the Trenton-Hillside Environmental Watch Association, stares pensively out his south-facing kitchen window. Through a thicket of spindly trees, across an inlet where the mouth of the East River meets Pictou Harbour, his gaze comes to a rest on the neighbouring Trenton Generating Station.
Since it opened in 1969, this coal-fired power plant, which operates at a capacity of 310MW, has come to define and shape Boyles' life. This used to be a nice place, until the neighbours from hell moved in.
Boyles' water, as with many other wells in the area, has been contaminated. Boyles' land, ostensibly arable, has been poisoned. Indeed, Nova Scotia Power, the provincial monopoly service provider and the owners of the Trenton Station, is known in the area for paying farmers to not bring crops it has admittedly ruined to market.
(In response to this harrowing scenario, in 2006 dozens of locals launched a class action lawsuit against Nova Scotia Power. That lawsuit continues to this day, and is not expected to end any time soon.)
There is also the substantial problem of blow-offs at the Trenton station, which every now and again rain thick coatings of coal fly-ash all over the hamlet of Hillside and its environs. The last significant blow-off took place March 11, 2012.
“The 11th was a really bad one. It was one you could see in the air,” says Boyles, leafing through poster-sized images of everyday outdoor items covered in what appears to be a thick coating of brownish-grey soot. A child's swing set; a car; a see-saw; all of them hidden under a crust of hardened fly-ash.
“It covered everything. It made a mess of everything...People are now taking their brand new vehicles, and getting them washed, and Nova Scotia Power is paying for it," says Boyles. "People are taking them and getting them buffed, but that stuff is in the paint now.”
Exactly what “that stuff” is, is up for debate. The day of Cape Breton and Pictou County coal powering the Trenton station is over, although recent developments at the Donkin mine may well change all that.
For the moment, parent company Emera's taste in coal now runs Colombian - where a 2011 observation mission from the United Mine Workers of America noted that coal mines have no safety standards, no mining laws, and virtually non-existent inspection systems. Companies in Colombia have been found employing paramilitaries; murder and expropriation of land are well documented, and serious environmental concerns have been raised over open-pit mining practices.
It is a situation that critics suggest is far, far worse than the turn-of-the-20th-century battles fought in Nova Scotia over coal miners' rights. The Colombian product is referred to uneasily in Nova Scotia as “Blood Coal”.
If the fly-ash raining down on himself and his family was from Blood Coal, that would be bad enough, according to Boyles. But while the Trenton station burns eight hundred thousand tons of coal per year, Boyles suspects that Nova Scotia Power is burning more than coal at Trenton.
“We know they do test burns,” says Boyles. “We really, really figure that they tried to burn the [waste runoff] down in the coke ovens, down in Syndey Tar Ponds. We really believe they were taken up here [to] try to test burn it to see if it would burn."
Whether or not Nova Scotia Power is test burning Sydney Tar Pond waste runoff, it maintains a strange relationship with Environment Canada: while the power monopoly is mandated to report its everyday emissions in the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI), it is in fact allowed to declare that it is having a “test burn,” and then, having done so, does not have to report emissions findings to the federal department.
So when the Trenton station wasn't having a test burn, according to the NPRI in 2010 it emitted 38 kilograms of arsenic, 16 kilograms of lead, 19 kilograms of mercury, and 19,257 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air. And under the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reporting Program, in 2010 Trenton spewed out 1,700,548 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 16.4% of Nova Scotia's total.
And when it was having a test burn? Nobody really knows.
As a result, when Boyles recently asked Environment Canada what's being burned at Trenton, they answered that they had no data on test burns. And for how long are they allowed to test burn?
"There's no time limit," says Boyles. "They test burn until they get their results, and that could be twenty years from now!”
Despite public promises, and a track record when they were the opposition party of lining up on the picket lines with Peter Boyles, Darrell Dexter's provincial NDP government has been sidestepping the concerns of the locally-known “Hillside Gang” since gaining majority party status. After provincial minister of the environment Sterling Belliveau made a public announcement in 2010 that the region would be receiving its long sought-after epidemiological study, and then backtracked, Boyles and the Hillside Gang set up a picket outside a recent caucus meeting. Their signs that day read: “NDP Liars Convention.”
“When we first started our group, the very first person to join us was Charlie Parker. He's now the Minister of Resources and Energy…Now, I say they've got amnesia," says Boyles.
"They turn around and they forget... When Clarrie MacKinnon [Current MLA Pictou East] started running, he was out there too. Every time we had a function, they were there, and they were just telling the government of the day, 'this is not right.' But now, as I say, they've got amnesia.”
Amnesia aside, it seemed for a time that the Trenton station might be forced to stop burning coal. In 2011 the federal government proposed that all coal plants over 45 years of age would be automatically forced to close, which would have seen one half of the Trenton station, opened in 1969, closed by 2014.
But since January of 2012, the feds have begun to moonwalk their way out of any binding statement. The Canadian government has now offered the option of having provinces define their own emissions regulations, which may or may not see antiquated coal plants closed, depending on the whims of the provincial government.
In Nova Scotia, the last true-cost analysis of energy generation in the province occurred in 2005, when think-tank GPI Atlantic issued a dire warning on the long-term costs that burning coal was having on the environment and human health, which is to say nothing of the human rights and environmental violations occurring in Colombia. But the report, as well as others produced by GPI Atlantic, looks to have been ignored by the current provincial government. Key staffers from GPI Atlantic are now gainfully employed doing world-leading, true-cost, analysis work for the country of Bhutan.
The federal government says that shutting down Nova Scotia's coal-fired power plants might cost an estimated $250 million. But Nova Scotia Power and the province have countered that it will cost along the lines of $1 billion or more.
The massive discrepancy results from Nova Scotia Power's method of calculating the potential earning power of its assets into the future. And so, without a federal mandate to do so, and with a hefty, albeit imaginary, price tag attached to the action, there is now no timeline based on which Nova Scotia's coal plants will close.
Cat Abreu, with the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre is pleased with the fact that the province's greenhouse gas emission regulations are more stringent than what is federally required, and does see improvement on the part of Nova Scotia Power, but also sees the need for a binding timeline for Nova Scotia to break itself from its coal-fired habit.
“A complete phase out of coal-fired generation by 2030 is possible if Nova Scotia starts to seriously consider import substitution from other jurisdictions, invest in grids between the Atlantic provinces to allow for the development and cross-provincial transmission of renewable energy, develop an aggressive plan for industrial level and community level renewable energy development, and consider restructuring Nova Scotia Power to separate the production system from the distribution system,” says Abreu.
This stagnancy on the coal front, as well as a series of other mishandlings great and small, has caused newly founded anti-capitalist organization Solidarity Halifax to launch a campaign to return Nova Scotia Power to public ownership. The group says that Nova Scotia Power has sent two billion Nova Scotia dollars to corporate shareholders since being privatized in 1992, yet still will cut off an insolvent family's heat in the middle of winter.
Solidarity Halifax argues that a publicly owned power utility would mean that over $100 million would be available for investment in green jobs and green energy/technology within the province; investments that would once and for all end the coal plants.
In its defense, Nova Scotia Power has recently announced that it will be cutting back use on two of the four boilers at its 600 MW plant in Lingan, on Cape Breton Island. The Lingan plant is currently the province's number one source of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing roughly 35% of all carbon dioxide emissions in 2010.
Still, to Peter Boyles, a hop, skip and a jump away from the Trenton station, it's not enough.
“Well, that's good in Lingan,” says Boyles. “But there's not another power plant that sits right in the town like this, burning coal.”