Springhill’s Novaco Mine

This reclaimed coal mine in Springhill is a lake today, an example of how former mines and quarries are often hidden in plain sight!

Coal mining started in Springhill, Cumberland County, as early as 1834 when a local man sold coal to blacksmiths.

Some small-scale mining took place starting in the late 1850s after the General Mining Association lost its 30-year monopoly on most Nova Scotia minerals and independent operators were able to open new mines. Mining in Springhill did not flourish, however, until after 1872, with the arrival of the Intercolonial and Springhill-to-Parrsboro railways, which facilitated the transport of coal to markets by both land and sea. Coal mining would become a pillar of the local economy, but Springhill also had several major tragedies in its mines (https://www.facebook.com/MiningNS/post)

In 1979, a new Nova Scotia government corporation called Novaco Limited became involved with coal mining in the province. It hired Antigonish-based Pioneer Coal to operate the Point Aconi mine in Cape Breton, which is an excellent example of reclamation mining – cleaning up historical mines by completing extraction and returning them to nature or preparing them for other uses. The Point Aconi mine was on the site of the former Prince coal mine. Today the site is green field and ponds as a result of Pioneer Coal’s reclamation work (https://www.facebook.com/MiningNS/post).

Proposals received by the provincial government in the early 1980s suggested an underground coal mine could extract the Rodney coal seam in Springhill, immediately to the north of the penitentiary.

The provincial government was interested but decided to adopt a phased approach. The first phase was to operate a surface mine – an open pit – which would allow for greater evaluation of the area’s potential for an underground mine, while also generating revenue so the mining would not cost taxpayers.

A consultant’s report from 1981 said, “The open pit is too small to support the purchase of equipment and should be contracted.”

The second proposed phase was to be an underground “pilot mine,” which would work both the Rodney and McCarthy coal seams. According to the consultant, the pilot mine would provide “at a relatively small cost, information for detailed design before a major capital commitment.”

Only after these two phases would a full underground mine be considered: “By this stage of development the economic analysis can be made with a high degree of confidence and minimal risk.”

Novaco hired Telcon Construction of Halifax and Latimer Construction of Truro to operate the surface mine. In 1982-83, a total of 83,000 tonnes of coal was extracted.

A company called Pentum Mining Development Ltd. was issued a license for the development of a 220,000 tonne-per-year underground mine, with a capital cost of about $2 million.

The mine was expected to employ about 65 people, many of them then-employees at the Cochrane Mine in River Hebert, which was closing around the same time. The initial expected mine life was to be 10 years with the possibility of the mine operating up to 20 years at half the yearly production.

Pentum collected a number of letters of support from potential customers for the coal, including Lafarge Canada for both its Brookfield and Havelock plants, Nova Scotia Power’s Maccan and Trenton plants, and Canadian Forces Base Gagetown. Smaller potential clients included the Salem & Hillsborough Railroad Inc. tourist train in Hillsborough, New Brunswick, which used about 500 tonnes of coal per year, and the Atlantic Provinces Resource Center for the Hearing Impaired in Amherst which used about 1000 tonnes per year.

Despite this interest, the project never proceeded to the second phase and no underground mining was done. Mining is an extremely complicated business – only one in every 10,000 exploration projects becomes an actual mine – and it is common for projects to stall for a variety of reasons.

Instead, Latimer Construction was hired to reclaim the surface mine and the site was turned into a field and a lake. Former surface mines and quarries often become lakes because they naturally fill with rainwater and water from underground springs. Water is pumped out of most mines/quarries to keep them from filling so when operations are done and the pumping stops, the sites fill naturally.

Today, before they even start mining, companies must get government approval of reclamation plans and post reclamation bonds (money in escrow, basically) that ensure funds are available to reclaim sites. Lakes and wetlands are often part of reclamation plans.

The site was again considered for development in the 1990s but nothing came of it.

Historical mining disasters like those that took place in Springhill are a key reason why the modern mining industry is so safety-focussed. Nova Scotia’s industry has reduced its injury rate by 90% since the Westray inquiry report was released in 1997. We believe the most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner, and our modern safety record reflects this.

See the story of the first Springhill Mine Disaster which occurred in 1891: https://www.facebook.com/MiningNS/post

Metallurgical coal from mines like Cape Breton’s Donkin mine are essential to clean energy because green technologies like electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels are partly made of steel. For example, an electric vehicle (EV) typically contains about one tonne of steel. That means an EV contains about 0.8 tonnes of metallurgical coal. Learn more at https://www.facebook.com/MiningNS/post

The Novaco mine during reclamation in 1985.

The Novaco mine after reclamation.