Last week, the Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton reopened, creating more uncertainty for Catherine Fergusson. For years, she has been robbed of sleep by noise from the mine, even when it was closed. Now that the site is up and running again, there is no guarantee the constant low-frequency hum she describes will stop.

Donkin — the only operational underground coal mine in Canada — closed in 2020 after a series of roof cave-ins and a provincial stop-work order put a pause on operations. The ventilation fan that causes Donkin’s constant noise pulls fresh air into the mine to dilute methane, which is naturally occurring in coal, and prevent explosions. The sound is insidious for Fergusson. Although she’s eight kilometres away, it echoes across the bay that separates her ranch-style red house from the mine, passing through the walls of her home.

Diluting methane is essential when the mine is in care and maintenance, as it has been for the past two years, and in production: miners need to be protected from a buildup of methane gas.

The noise has been better over the past week, Fergusson admits. However, it hasn’t stopped completely, and most importantly, there have been “no assurances” that the mine’s owner, Kameron Coal, has a plan in place to find a permanent solution.

There have been other short reprieves. Like in August, when noise testing allowed Fergusson to bask in a couple weeks of precious silence. She slept better, she says, and felt significantly happier and less stressed out. The quiet times were a rarity when the mine was closed: Kameron Coal installed larger, louder ventilation fans without silencers in August 2019 after a methane fire.

Catherine Fergusson and her husband Michael Lea on the lawn of their house near the Donkin mine in August during a break from the noise. Photo by Cloe Logan

Since then, there’s been a constant push and pull between residents, the company and the government.

At a June meeting of the community liaison committee (CLC) — a group made up of Kameron Coal representatives and local government officials — the committee said recent improvements didn’t help with fan noise. But “if the mine reopens and we find that the second modification has not worked, we can look at exploring other solutions that were too expensive when the mine was not producing coal,” the company said. “It will be easier to get money when we are making money.”

On July 29, according to meeting minutes, a more expensive conventional silencer was installed, but it has not solved the problem, says Fergusson.

The ventilation fan at the Donkin mine is necessary to prevent explosions, but it's also the thorn in the side of many residents who say the noise has interrupted their way of life on and off for years.

According to minutes from an August meeting of the CLC, company employees said they might have to increase the pitch of the fan blades, which “does not [guarantee] change in the noise level” in response to a question asking if the noise level of the fans will change once production restarts. When the mine is in production, methane levels will be higher, so there is a direct correlation to noise levels when there is more methane.

Nova Scotia Environment Department spokesperson Tracy Barron said results from a department study show the mine is in compliance with noise levels. Nova Scotia’s guidelines for assessing and measuring noise are currently being revised, Barron said, adding the province plans to engage with people affected when updating the rules.

“We know that the noise coming from the mine’s ventilation fans has been difficult for a number of people who live nearby. Department staff are assigned to the file and are in regular contact with the company regarding this issue,” she said.

“We have been very clear with Kameron Coal that our expectation is for them to maintain compliance with all terms and conditions of its approval, including noise, and to proactively keep the community liaison committee informed of the mitigation work being performed.”

Catherine Fergusson pointing across the bay to the Donkin mine while on the lawn of her home with husband Michael Lea. Photo by Cloe Logan

The call for a permanent shutdown

Fergusson and her husband, Michael Lea, unequivocally opposed the mine reopening for environmental and safety reasons — as well as the incessant noise.

They feel ignored by the provincial government, which they say favours one of the most-polluting industries in the world over residents’ health and well-being. Meanwhile, other residents are happy the mine, and the jobs that come along with it, are back.

They are members of a community group called the Cow Bay Environmental Committee, which has been pushing back against the mine. Their efforts grabbed the attention of noise expert Sarah Barnes, who read about their struggles in a local paper.

The professor at Sydney's Cape Breton University studies the history and politics of sleep and knows how debilitating constant noise can be. Barnes has heard from residents near the mine who have experienced mental health issues and physical problems like headaches due to worsening sleep, prompting people to deal with the noise through numerous methods: earplugs, keeping a television on or, for some, leaving town for extended periods of time. She’s started a research project on the community, collecting the experience of residents to document the impact of the mine. The study is still underway, but she hopes it will serve as an official record of what residents have endured and is aiming to release the stories as the next step.

“Some of the findings are really about, like, people's grief and loss of who they are. Their lives are turned upside down. They miss who they used to be before the sound,” she said. “Feeling isolated, abandoned and a real sort of feeling like the community is divided.”

The science around lack of sleep is clear, she explained. The impacts range from higher cancer rates to weakened immune systems to negative effects on mood and cognition. And typically, people of colour and low-income individuals sleep less. Barnes points to Cape Breton’s high unemployment rate and the rural location of the Donkin mine combined with the aging population who is “often left out of conversations” as evidence of an ongoing injustice in the community.

“I remember reading headlines about the trucker convoy in Ottawa. There were many sleepless nights for people there, and that's been happening here for two years. It doesn't look exactly the same, but you can see there are different responses to these groups,” she said.

“And part of that is about place and history.”

Sleep remains a “social privilege,” Barnes said, and notes most discussions on how to protect sleep are geared towards affluent stay-at-home workers — think softer beds, weighted blankets and white noise machines. To her, what’s happened to the communities around the mine is “government neglect and industry indifference.”

A mic monitoring noise from the Donkin mine. Photo by Cloe Logan

Residents left behind

Using the noise as leverage to reopen doesn’t sit well with Fergusson and Lea, or other residents like Eleanor Peach Gallant and her cousin LeRoy Peach: all of whom are part of the Cow Bay Environmental Committee.

The group commiserates while talking about the past couple years, specifically around Christmas 2021. Gallant found the noise so uncomfortable, she went to her sister’s house on Prince Edward Island.

“On Christmas Eve, we were up most of the night, and it wasn't because we were excited about opening up presents,” said Fergusson.

“It was so loud, like, we were up [all night] having tea. We really tried to keep our spirits up because it was a special day. I think we did really well. But, you know, by the time Boxing Day rolled around, there was a part of me that was really bitter.”

This is Part 3 in a Canada’s National Observer series on the Donkin mine. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

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