Af­ter an un­con­ven­tional American busi­ness­man re­opens Tum­bler Ridge's mines, lo­cal res­i­dents have rea­son to hope

BC Business Magazine - - Front Page - By Mar­cie Good

Dean Turner no­ticed that more peo­ple were buy­ing bed­ding plants this spring at his Ace Hard­ware store in Tum­bler Ridge. With more than 100 departments, in­clud­ing lum­ber, ma­jor ap­pli­ances, toys, pet sup­plies, health and beauty, and am­mu­ni­tion, the shop is an economic barom­e­ter for the north­east­ern town. “Those are lit­tle in­di­ca­tions,” Turner says. “As silly as it may sound, it's like, last year they didn't buy fer­til­izer. This year they do.”

The im­proved sales of marigolds and petu­nias were a sign that the com­mu­nity, built by the pro­vin­cial govern­ment in 1981 as a set­tle­ment for work­ers at two new met­al­lur­gi­cal coal mines, was see­ing its lat­est up­turn. In April 2014, as coal prices bot­tomed out, Van­cou­ver-based Wal­ter En­ergy Canada Hold­ings Inc. closed three mines near Tum­bler Ridge and neigh­bour­ing Chetwynd, putting about 700 peo­ple out of work. In early 2016, amid a rash of prop­erty fore­clo­sures, a Sta­tis­tics Canada cen­sus showed a pop­u­la­tion of 1,987, a drop of al­most 27 per cent from five years pre­vi­ously.

Last Septem­ber, news came that Con­uma Coal Re­sources Ltd., a sub­sidiary of Vir­gini­abased ERP Com­pli­ant Fu­els LLC, had bought Wal­ter En­ergy's three mines and called a town hall meet­ing. “It was the cra­zi­est thing,” re­calls Jer­ri­lyn Schem­bri, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Tum­bler Ridge Cham­ber of Com­merce. “Th­ese men from the States come in, and they sit ev­ery­body down, and they said, `Let's open this meet­ing with a prayer,' and then, `We're here to change this town.'”

The com­pany, run by Vir­ginian en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Tom Clarke, has made progress. A week af­ter the meet­ing, the Brule mine pulled its first load of coal. This Jan­uary, Con­uma re­opened the Wolver­ine mine. It hired about 350, half the num­ber of work­ers that pre­vi­ously staffed the op­er­a­tion, but it's promised a new busi­ness model that will keep run­ning in pe­ri­ods of low coal prices.

Clarke had al­ready at­tracted at­ten­tion in the U.S. with his scheme to buy sev­eral coal mines and re­duce their en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact, cre­at­ing pol­lu­tion cred­its by plant­ing trees around the world to off­set the car­bon emit­ted from burn­ing coal.

In early July, how­ever, Con­uma's own­ers re­ceived an en­force­ment or­der from the pro­vin­cial En­vi­ron­men­tal Assess­ment Of­fice halt­ing pro­duc­tion at the Wolver­ine mine. The com­pany had been trans­port­ing coal by truck, which is pro­hib­ited, be­cause the Cana­dian Na­tional Rail­way Co. spur line to Tum­bler Ridge had been out of ser­vice and not sched­uled to re­open un­til Septem­ber. The stop-work or­der seemed a re­minder of the un­cer­tainty ahead.

Peo­ple who left Tum­bler Ridge dur­ing the clo­sures are will­ing to give it an­other chance. At Ace Hard­ware, they greet Turner with the kind of re­mark you'd ex­pect af­ter a dis­as­ter: “You sur­vived!” But hav­ing come through the last mine clo­sure and re­open­ing in 2003, he's cau­tious. “We're on the pos­i­tive side,” Turner says. “But we still got a ways to go.”

GE­O­LOG­I­CAL FIND Tum­bler Ridge has been rec­og­nized by UNESCO as a Global Geop­ark

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