The Future of Mining in Tumbler Ridge Part I: Mining Goes Boom

Trent Ernst, Editor

A recent report from the Conference Board of Canada says that mineral output is expected to grow 91 percent between now and the end of the decade. Over the same time frame, the Canadian Economy is only expected to grow 21.5 percent.

By 2020, an additional 17,000 people will be working in the mining industry in the north, which includes Canada’s three territories, as well as the northern sections of most provinces, while up to 70,000 people are expected to be employed in industries serving the added demands.

The vast northern regions of Canada have plenty of resources, from diamonds to gold to iron to copper and coal, which this town was built upon, which means the potential for growth is staggering.

A bit of Navel Gazing

Let’s look at Tumbler Ridge, for instance. Currently, the Wolverine mine employs 330 people. Peace River Coal employs about 400 or so.

Over the next two years, Quintette is expected to spin up with a proposed workforce of 550 people. Peace River Coal was recently granted a conditional environmental assessment certificate for the Roman Mine, which could see that number of people blossom up to 750. Those two projects alone more than double the number of miners working in the Tumbler Ridge area, and doesn’t take into consideration any of the other projects currently under consideration, including the Murray River Mine and Hillsborough’s Echo Hill project.

According to the report, Northern British Columbia is expected to see the fastest expansion of mining output out of all the northern regions in the next seven years, with an expected output growth of 300 percent. In addition to the mines around Tumbler Ridge, Terrane Minerals Corporation is working on the Mount Milligan copper and gold project. Mount Milligan is under construction and will commence full production in 2014, while another large project, the Avanti molybdenum project, is forecast to come into operation in the next few years.

In addition to these large new mines, the Red Chris copper and gold mine and the Galore Creek gold, silver and copper mines are both awaiting the completion of the Northwest Transmission line next year. The Gibraltar copper mine, already the second largest open pit copper/molybdenum is going to be expended in the next few years as well.

Across Northern BC, there were 1,368 people employed in the mining sector in 2011. By 2020, that number is expected to double, then nearly double again, with a potential 4,826 people employed in mining.

It’s not all roses

Yes, the potential for growth is tremendous. But this leads to its own set of problems. Mining is a cyclical, non-renewable resource industry. You cut down a tree, plant a new one, and in a few decades, you have another tree. But you dig up the coal, it’s gone for good.

What needs to be done? According to the study, there are a number of potential issues facing the mining industry that need to be addressed, including:

Regulatory Red Tape: Regulatory processes are complex and cumbersome, and lack clarity and consistency for all proponents. According to the report, “many project review boards do not have the capacity to ensure project reviews are completed in a timely manner. This presents significant obstacles for investors.” While the federal government has taken steps toward reducing the amount of red tape, greater cooperation is needed between the federal and provincial government as well as Aboriginal governments, who need to be full and equal participants in decision-making.

Inadequate or non-existent infrastructure: This includes transportation, energy and connectivity. Anyone who has lived in Tumbler Ridge for more than a year or two remembers day-long power outages at -40. And connecting to the world wide web at .2 mb/s. Anyone who has been here more than five years remember the mess that was Highway 97 before it was finally resurfaced. Lack of infrastructure is one of the biggest problems facing mining development in northern Canada, and while Tumbler Ridge has it relatively good compared to many other locations, there are still issues that need to be overcome. In many situations, it is the companies that build their own transportation, communication, and/or energy infrastructure, adding significant costs to projects. The report recommends that governments invest broadly in northern infrastructure and “make use of public-private partnerships to share risks, costs, and benefits.”

Shortage of skilled labour: We’ve all been watching the HD Mining case with interest, but it isn’t just that mine that is having trouble finding people to work there. Tumbler Ridge has people here from The USA, from South Africa, from Australia as the companies import workers from their other projects to make up for staffing shortfalls. It is only going to get worse. The mining industry worldwide is facing a labour shortage, and fewer and fewer young people are getting into mining as a career.

Engagement of local and aboriginal communities:

Consultation is essential to provide first nations with the tools needed to make informed decisions about upcoming projects. While some companies, like Teck, are leading the way, companies are not obligated to consult with these communities beforehand, which has lead to unfortunate results, sometimes for the First Nations, sometimes for the company. There are mechanisms like Impact and Benefit Agreements (IBAs) that can be instrumental in ensuring that a community’s needs are met and properly accommodated. “Furthermore, ongoing consultation throughout all phases of mining activity—from exploration to mine closure—helps build and foster positive relationships.”

Environmental stewardship:

Mining impacts the environment, but as new technical innovations come on-stream, combines with traditional ecological knowledge, that impact can be lessened. Improved regulations and new, industry-led initiatives have all contributed to improving the industry’s environmental performance, especially compared to mining’s early days. “Despite all of this,” says the report, “many important environmental concerns remain, particularly around the uncertainties of the long-term impacts of mining on flora and fauna.”

Clarity around mine closure:

It was just over a decade ago that the mines shut down, removing the economic engine from this community. While Tumbler Ridge survived, it was a wake-up call. Yes, we benefit from mining jobs, higher incomes, business opportunities, and infrastructure. But when the mines close down…. “Robust closure plans should be in place to help diversify the local economy, especially when the community is reliant on a single resource. Mining companies, governments, and local communities should work together at the outset of a project to provide solutions that will mitigate the impacts of closure.”

Each of these issues brings with it its own set of challenges and opportunities. And each community is different. Over the next few weeks, the Tumbler Ridge News will be looking at these issues, using this report as a guide, but talking to local and provincial industry leaders, politicians and big thinkers.