Towns on the clock: What comes after coal for B.C.'s mining towns?

In B.C.'s southeast, towns in the Elk Valley have long relied on coal for jobs and some might say, its very existence. But coal mining is not a business that lasts forever. What comes next for these towns?

Coal has for decades been the way of life for miners in towns like Elkford, Sparwood and Fernie

Sparwood Mayor Cal McDougall stands next to the giant truck on display in the town. Indeed, mining is a giant presence in the Elk Valley. But it won't be around forever. (Josh Pagé/CBC)

Mining coal for steelmaking has been the way of life — a good life — for coal miners in towns like Elkford, Sparwood and Fernie for more than a century.

But there's also tension there, as coal truck driver Katie Bulger, who originally moved to the area for the snowboarding, explains.

"It is kind of a huge push and pull between ... loving the mountains, being outdoors, and then going to a mine where it is just destroying mountains," she said.

Dean McKerracher, mayor of Elkford, feels tension too, but on a different matter.

Katie Bulger moved to the Elk Valley for the snowboarding, but stayed to drive a coal truck. She struggles to reconcile the nature of her work with her love of the outdoors. (Josh Pagé/CBC)

While the major mines are expected to be in operation for several more decades, he worries what their inevitable closure will mean for the future of his community.

The plan is to try to transition into tourism.

"Tourism is difficult, because we're at the beginning of the road, not the end," he said. "We'll have to develop more tourism, and better tourism."

They're not the only ones contemplating life after coal in these towns on the clock.

End of mining can be end of a town

The fate of Cassiar, a former company town in B.C.'s northwest, provides an example of what can happen when a resource town loses its resource: in the case of Cassiar, asbestos.

The end of that town is documented in two 1992 CBC Radio reports.

Listen to the CBC's stories about the end of Cassiar:

Bobbi Hutchison, a writer of Harlequin romance novels, grew up near Michel, an Elk Valley town that was simply razed after a decade of decline for coal.

"My dad would often make $45 for two weeks work," Hutchison said. "Coal miners didn't make much money."

"If the mine whistles blew, that meant there was no work that day. … I remember my father saying, 'If the whistles blew, that means we lose the car.' It was that close."

Coal dust pollution played into the destruction of Michel and Natal too. The provincial government believed the air was too dirty for people to live there.

Former Sparwood town councillor Hungry Betaluke worries about what pollution will mean for his town.

A bend in the Elk River, which flows through the Elk Valley. In addition to towns like Elkford, Sparwood and Fernie, the area used to be home to the now-razed Michel and Natal. ( Josh Pagé/CBC)

"It's going to be troublesome when that mountain drops low enough and the east and south winds combine," Betaluke said.

"We've had instances where some of our trailer parks to the north here and Sparwood Heights have been dusted quite heavily. … It could be a significant impact on the community."

'We want to collaborate'

Teck Resources is the major player in the Elk Valley mining game. It has five mines employing 4,000 people directly. The company earned $4 billion in 2016.

Nick Milligan is Teck's man on the ground, the person tasked with keeping the towns and local First Nations happy with the company.

"We do want to collaborate with the communities where we operate and work in partnership with those communities to understand what their goals are," Milligan said. "We recognize they need to be sustainable, through mining, into closure."

A road sign to one of Teck's mines in the area. Teck is a huge economic force in the Elk Valley. (Josh Pagé/CBC)

In Fernie, diversification into tourism is well underway and it's a big boon for people like Carolyn Doyle, owner of Big Bang Bagels.

But, she says, without mining, it's not enough.

"Businesses like mine would only be open when the tourists are there," she said, explaining how miners make up a big part of her customer base.

Will tourism be enough?

Sparwood's Mayor, Cal McDougall, knows planning for what comes next isn't easy, especially when mining accounts for over 40 percent of the town's tax base and has paid for many amenities and keeps residential taxes low.

"We're trying to plan 20 years ahead. You have to do that and it's not an easy thing to do," he said. "Our population has stayed quite stagnant over the last 10 years. We thought there would be a population growth and thus increased taxes and increased retail."

Kathryn Teneese, is chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council, a First Nation that decided they wanted in on the benefits of mining.

Kathryn Teneese says her nation was tired of seeing coal trucks carry away goods from their traditional territory, so they struck a deal with Teck. (Josh Pagé/CBC)

Last year, Ktunaxa struck a confidential deal with Teck on everything from hiring of Ktunaxa workers to what the land will look like once the mines go.

"We don't want to be watching the coal cars go by, taking something from our homeland for somebody else's benefit," she said. "We needed to be a part of that.

"The important thing is ... [remediating the land to be] as close to what it was originally."

Just like the towns of Fernie, Sparwood and Elkford, the nation is seeking permanent gains from a temporary business.

Listen to Radio West's complete Towns on the Clock documentary, with additional interviews and stories:

With files from CBC Radio One's Radio West