British Columbia

Tumbler Ridge coal mines sold to U.S. company brings hope to struggling town

The sale of three Tumbler Ridge coal mines in northeastern B.C. was finalized Friday, providing some hope for the struggling resource town.

CEO says company plans to reopen two of the idled mines in near future

At least one coal mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C. could be operating within the month after being sold to a U.S. company. It will be the first operational coal mine in the northeastern B.C. community since January 2015. (iStock)

The sale of three Tumbler Ridge coal mines in northeastern B.C. was finalized Friday, providing some hope for the struggling resource town.

West Virginia-based ERP Compliant Fuels has purchased the idled Brule, Willow Creek and Wolverine mines.

Its CEO said he plans to open two of the mines in the near future, possibly employing 400 people.

It's good news for a community that has been struggling in recent years.

 A series of mine closures in 2014 and 2015 saw more than 700 people lose their jobs in a matter of months.

Property values plummeted and the average assessment declined by 78 per cent between 2014 and 2016.

Dwindling global coal prices were behind the closures, but ERP Compliant Fuels CEO Ken McCoy said his company believes the industry can still be profitable.

"Our philosophy is to try to capitalize on this market where coal is out of favour by acquiring some of the best reserves that we can," he said. "That's what interested us in Canadian coals."

McCoy said the coal available in the Tumbler Ridge region could be used in steel production.

Coal sales used to buy carbon offsets

ERP Compliant Fuels bills itself as a fossil-fuel company interested in reducing global carbon emissions. According to the company's website, ERP uses revenue from coal sales to purchase carbon offsets in an effort to reduce overall C02 levels worldwide.

Some environmental groups have criticized a business model that uses profits from fossil fuels to offset carbon levels.

"Finding ways to make coal more economical is not really in our long-term interest," said Kyrke Gaudreau, sustainability manager at the University of Northern British Columbia.

"We actually have to make the conscious choice to start transitioning [away from fossil fuels]."

However, ERP's McCoy said he thinks the business model can be profitable and benefit the environment, by using coal sales to fund reforestation for example.

According to its website, ERP has purchased thousands of acres of former mined land in the U.S., and plans to plant millions of trees.

"We are a for-profit company that mines coal," said McCoy. "But we are trying to have influence to offset the carbon through reforestation."

Mines will create jobs, says CEO

McCoy pointed out that coal markets have been rebounding in recent weeks.

"We think it would justify even reopening at least one of the mines immediately, and that's our plan," he said. "It's come back to the point that we believe the mines can be profitable."

McCoy will be in Tumbler Ridge on Sept.12 to meet local leaders.

He said plans are underway to get the necessary permits to reopen, and he expects the Brule mine to be operating "within the month," followed by the Wolverine mine in the first half of 2017.

The Willow Creek mine will remain out of operation until further analysis is completed. "It's not in our short-term plans," said McCoy.

He estimated about 400 people would be employed by reopening the first two mines, most of them from the Tumbler Ridge region.

"It is our intention, to the extent that we can, to fill every job by locals." 

Last month, Mayor Don McPherson said he welcomed the interest in the community's mines.

"It'd be awesome for us, just the fact that somebody is looking at buying one of those mines, means a lot," McPherson said at the time.

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.

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