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Neighbours From Hell

Think you've got it bad? Try living next door to Nova Scotia Power's Trenton Generating Station

by Miles Howe

Peter Boyles and the Trenton Generating Station [Photo: Miles Howe]
Peter Boyles and the Trenton Generating Station [Photo: Miles Howe]

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.”

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Topics: Environment
1554 words


Trenton power plant

As long as NIMBYs like Anne Murray keep throwing up roadblocks to clean energy projects like wind power farms on the basis that they don't like tall white structures and a whooshing sound that they can't even hear from farther than 100 m, we'll just have to sacrifice people like Peter Boyles the whims of the rich and famous.

CO2 emissions vs. Health

Its an unfortunately common scenario, one that seems not to stick in the public mind.
Of all the things we as a society do, I think we are best at externalizeing, expecially the impacts of our actions and lifestyle choices, and segregating, both physically and mentally.  I turned a light on today, but I didn't think about the end of the line in the process of generating and transmitting power, the person or community subject to its waste.  But I guess this is where externalizing and segregating kinda go hand in hand and are mutually beneficial to each other in the human psyche. 

I enjoyed the dicotomy you intentionally or not set up by noting that even though CO2 emmissions standards are high in NS, people still get sick and suffer from environmentally damaging industries.  I think this point is important, that this 'climate change/global warming' fear mongering has no reflection on reality.  The real dangers to human and environmental health are the industries, many government owned and operated, that pump massive amounts of chemicals (CO2 being only one) into the environment with no regard for human or any life.  A scientist at some corporate/governmetn funded university made up a study that showed mice weren't effected by exposure to these random toxins indivdually and therefore lets fill a lagoon with mixture of toxic chemical waste products, put a school on an island in the middle and call it safe.   Logic and reason have left the building.

I think you mis-identify the problem associated with NS Power.  The problem is centralization of control.  The problem is monopoly control.  The problem is not 'capitalism', the problem is democratic crony monopoly capitalism as a form of collectivism backed by the threat of state violence.  Any and all monopoly situation creates a power divide between those who weild the reigns of power and those who do not.  The cost of power will not go down because those who hold power changed hands, it certainly hasn't for alcohol.  this is the intentional hegelian dialiectic that has been set up.  Either we have government monopoly control or we have corporate monopoly control.  And society has this debate over and over again, choosing one then the other and back again, always disappointed with the results, never learning any lessons.  Government can run the electric company at a loss and make rates low, but taxes will inevitably be high and proportional to the reduction in rates.  Keep in mind the government is most likely heavily invested in NS Power and profitting proportionally to its higher rates.

The costs (both environmentally and financially) of power generation will not be reduced by using 'renewable resources'.  Wind and solar generate power from the environment, thats for sure, but the structures that generate and transmit that power are still made from non-renewable resources like steel and copper.  These in themselves are poisonous industries.  But as we see, someone lives there, and someone suffers the effects of our physical externalities and mental segregations.  A shitty mine is a shitty mine whether its a coal mine or a copper mine or a diamond mine.

The answer is not a different monopoly, the answer is individualism and self responsibility.  The first R in the three R's is REDUCE, not recycle, not reuse.  REDUCE, and that is what I suggest people do.  Don't depend on government to stop using shitty stuff to make the power you consider a god given right, stop using their power, revoke your consent first and foremost.  Find community ways to generate your own power and stand up for your right to do so.  Stop trying to elect people to do things for you, do the things you think are right and stand up for your right to do so.


I agree with you, in principle, that we should all be reducing our energy use, whether it comes from coal, or whatever. But the point of the article was to externalize the argument, because I think that people will react to a greater degree to the knowledge that the energy source we use could be far cleaner than it is, rather than chastizing them for running their computers, microwaves, air conditioning, etc, at the same time. It could be my negativity, but I don't think people are all that interested in cutting down on their energy use, and they tune out when they are asked to change their own behaviours. The behaviours of the monopoly power provider, however, as an external source of our ire (and a decent one, at that), is a worthy scapegoat whose actions deserve our attention.

So while demanding that the energy provider switch energy sources doesn't seek out the crux of the problem, which is our own behaviours, it does on the other hand allow us to continue on at a glutonous pace for a moment in time, or at the very least understand that certain individuals actually pay with their lives for our wants. I wish every article could be a rant on how badly we need to change our consumption patterns, but the monopoly on thought control that encourages unheeded buying and consumption is a greater beast to take on than the local power monopoly.

I also disagree that I identified capitalism as the problem. I think I clearly indentify Nova Scotia Power, as a private monopoly, as the problem. The only mention of anti-capitalism is towards a local group that was to de-privatize the monopoly, and have it be run by the province. They are still in an emerging state, in terms of their campaign, so I can't really delve into that angle more than I did.

Decentralized control is something we hear more and more of, and I desperately want that, especially for energy production/distribution. The reality, though, is that there are numerous coal-fired generating stations that exist in Nova Scotia, and the question to be asked is: What do we actually do with these? Are they assets? Liabilities? Do we shut them down immediately? What are the consequences of that?

A perfect world scenario is one where they just shut down the plants because people recognize that in general they could all cut down on their power consumption in many ways, making them irrelevant. For the time being though, the system is stacked harder against this than it is against turning those coal-fired plants into something else, based on an environmental and health argument. Theoretically yes, the change comes from within. Realistically, the coal plants, and coal, exist. Their effects on people and land are tangible things, that can stir us to individual and collective action.

glad we're on a similar page

I didn't mean to suggest that you directly stated that capitalism was the problem, it was more directed at the socialist minded reader.  "Anti-Capitalism" is back in a big way, and its an unsettling trend I've been watching develop for a while now.  But again thats the dialiectic, there are no other options in the minds of the many.  I took your pro-government monopoly control position as a socialist position (I have a feeling I've picked that up from some of the other articles you've written or topics you've covered), which, admittedly, isn't explicit in the words you actually wrote.  The quotes around 'capitalism', were to signify that most people use that word improperly, and don't really understand either what it means or what kind of system they live under.  NS Power was a shitty government monopoly before it was a shitty corporate monopoly, so i usually find that arguement a bit tired.

I agree, that the article as is, serves a valid and worthwhile purpose, to bring attention to these issues, and I commend you on a well written piece in that regard.  However, I feel as though the efforts put forth in educating people on such issues have gone unheaded.  Change appears to be rather slow baring some catastrophic misfortune (an even then its a long hard road, ie the tar ponds).  This consumerism and a feeling of a right to power consumption is at the heart of the problem.  The ideas and beliefs need to be changed right from birth.  That's how we got to this point, the public school system, mass media and entertainment have destroyed empathy, erased critical thinking and ruined lives.  The cult in this culture is as I said one of apathy, segregation and externalization all of which were schooled into us and then reinforced by societal influences of conformity.

I know the system has seriously stacked the deck in the other direction but to end what we see going on, we need works such as this to point to the horrible concequences of out externalities but also a comprehensive view of the who what when where why and how of the origins of this world view.  Otherwise we'll never escape this ever encompassing world of entertainment and amusement which distracts most people from giving a shit about the world around them. 

If I may make a suggestion for your listening pleasure.
This is a project I financially supported and found it to be extremely useful, I hope you find the same use in it.  It makes important connections in regards to some of the topics covered and the emerging of the world view refered to. 

The Ultimate History Lesson: A Weekend With John Taylor Gatto.

Free Documentary on Youtube

Audio Podcast with commentary and background research/references/roundtable discussion (Episodes 41-45, however they are all very informative)


Also, when I stated that if

Also, when I stated that if you didn't like something that you should remove your financial support for it, I didn't necessarily mean for everything you do.  There are extremely wasteful people out there, and lots of them.  But finding ways in your own life to reduce the load you apply and therefore your person responsbility for the damage caused by electric use is important.  There are so many wasteful people out there and inturn so many ways we are culturally encouraged to be wasteful, personally I believe this is intentional but thats another discussion entirely.  Regardless, its a bit hippocritical (for most people) to complain about where their power comes from and how horrible it's externalities are on other people, whilst putting up christmas lights for 3 months of the year and buying electronics that eat power both when they are on and off.  Again logic has left the building.

All I meant was, its a good piece, but I hope people can take more from it and come to some truth about reality, in the hopes of creating some change in their minds to align themselves with this reality.  Because rigth now, the reality envisioned by society is a fantasy.

The answer you were asking about is voluntary collective community action and appropriate advertizing of the positive results.
You cant' force people to do anything, they almost always resent it, regardless of outcome.
But you can lead them to truth by example and offer your free and unbiased assistence in helping them accomplish what you have accomplished.  In my opinion its the only way to do it.
Show people a way to reduce their consumption and expenses and inturn increase self reliance in an affordable way and you won't need to change people.  People will change themselves.

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