Conuma talks jobs

Trent Ernst, Editor

Recently, some people have been wondering about Job Fairs by Conuma being held outside of the region, including places as far away as Saskatoon.

This has led to some questioning of Conuma’s Commitment to hire local.

Conuma President Mark Bartkoski says the company is still committed to hire local for the Wolverine Mine, and says he doesn’t foresee a problem of fully staffing that mine with people from Tumbler Ridge.

However, the company is hoping to get the Willow Creek Mine up and running by the summer, and this, he says, is proving to be a bit more of a problem.

Bartkoski was addressing members of the Tumbler Ridge Chamber of Commerce at their AGM last week. He says the company was planning on not restarting Wolverine until mid-2017, and were in discussions with CN Rail to reopen the line then. “Well, the market has gone ballistic, and has stayed ballistic. We went to back to CN and asked if we could get the rail line on the first of the year. They said ‘no way’.”

But, he says, they’ve reached an agreement to see the rail line re-opened as soon as CN can, which, he says, will probably be September.

It does mean that Conuma will be paying a portion of the $20-million of repairs the line needs. “This is a very painful agreement for us,” he says. “It means we are spending more dollars than we wanted to. And the coal prices have dropped 40 percent in the last month. That’s not a good match.”

Still, he says, he is hoping the province will also come in and help with getting the rail line up and running. It was once, he points out, provincially owned, and it will have huge benefits for the town. “We went to them and said ‘Mr Provincial Government, is there anything that can be done?’ We can’t afford to get sloppy. When the market goes down, we want to be in a position that the town doesn’t go through another downturn.”

While those negotiations are still underway, he says, he hopes that something can be resolved.

What does this mean for Tumbler Ridge? It means that over the next few months, the Wolverine Mine is going to be going to full strength. “By the end of the year, we will need 220 people for Brule. 200 for Wolverine. 220 for Willow Creek. I made a commitment to hire locally as much as we could, and we are. 92 percent of employees are local. Our First Nations hire are higher than any other company. We made a commitment and we will honour that commitment.”

But finding people for Wolverine isn’t going to be a problem. “Can I get 200 people at Wolverine,” asks Bartkoski? “Yes. Tumbler Ridge is blessed with an experienced work force. But Brule is an hour and a half drive away. Willow Creek is two hours. If someone were driving from Tumbler Ridge, that would be a 16 hour day.”

And, he says, he doesn’t feel comfortable knowing that people would be driving four hours a day. “Having people work at Willow Creek and driving in from Tumbler Ridge isn’t realistic,” he says. Not the least of his concerns is for the safety of those people. “I’m just not feeling right having people drive the two hours in and two hours back. I can’t say we’re not going to a camp.”

He says Walter got around this by building a camp, but that’s not something Conuma wants to do, though the idea is not off the table. The company, he says, committed to the communities and he’d rather see people move to Chetwynd rather than stay in camp. Still, he says, there aren’t a lot of accommodations available in Chetwynd and they might be forced to explore that options. “We’re struggling to get people to Brule,” he says. Right now, there are still people commuting from Tumbler. He’s not sure what will happen when Willow Creek opens up.

Right now, he says, the company employs 330 people: 235 from Tumbler Ridge, 90 from Chetwynd. If Willow Creek opens in July, they will need another 220 from Chetwynd. “By the end of 2017 we will probably have hired another 105 people from Tumbler. But we’ll need another 230 people from Chetwynd, which would bring us to 340 from Tumbler 320 from Chetwynd. That’s going to be hard. I want to staff all three of these mines. We’ve already sent nine vessels to Asia. We’re on pace to put $60 million in wages into the local economy, to spend $250 million in local supplies and services. I want to build Conuma so that we are one of the preferred employers. We have a great quality product and if we can match that with great quality people, we can build something special.”