COAL SURVIVOR TUMBLER RIDGE BOUNCES BACK
After an unconventional American businessman reopens Tumbler Ridge's mines, local residents have reason to hope
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