Tumbler Ridge to ring in new year with return of mining jobs
Second coal mine restarting prompts hiring of 220 more people
Ami Strang was working as a lab technician at the Wolverine coal mine in Tumbler Ridge when it was shut down in April 2014.
"I moved back in with my parents, I put all my stuff back in storage," she said.
She later found work in Fort McMurray, but it involved being away from home for long stretches of time.
We went to work one day and found out we weren't working. It was pretty rough."- Ami Strang
"Luckily for me I'm single and don't have any kids," she said.
"I know a lot of families here whose dads are gone to camp and aren't home very often. So it was very hard on the community."
Strang was one of more than 700 Tumbler Ridge residents to lose their jobs in 2014 and 2015 as dropping demand for coal led to a series of mine closures in the community of just under 3,000 people.
"We went to work one day and found out we weren't working," Strang recalled. "It was pretty rough."
'Things were feeling a little bit hopeless'
That sentiment is shared by Tumbler Ridge Chamber of Commerce executive director Jerrilyn Schembri.
"Things were feeling a little bit hopeless," she said. "Houses were going back to the banks, people didn't have a lot of extra money and people were really just holding on in the hopes that something would happen."
Something did happen earlier this year when Conuma Coal, a newly formed Canadian affiliate of West Virginia's ERP Compliant Fuels, purchased three Tumbler Ridge coal mines, including Wolverine.
"That really was a shot in the arm to Tumbler Ridge," Schembri said. "All of a sudden the whole mood seemed to change ... the feeling around town brightened."
Coal to be used for steel production
ERP Compliant Fuels CEO Ken McCoy told CBC that his company believes coal can still be profitable, if the right approach is taken.
"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, which is a less volatile market.
Environmental costs criticized
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, 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."
Local workers for local jobs
He also said they want to take a community-based approach, which includes hiring as many locals as possible.
"It is our intention, to the extent that we can, to fill every job by locals."
His company started by reopening the Brule mine, about 1.5 hours away from Tumbler Ridge, and hiring back 170 people — including Strang.
She said the company's community-based approach is evident in the way things are being run.
"Their outlook is to be able to run the mine at low-cost so when [a changing market] does happen again, they won't just lay everybody off ... which is super settling," she said.
"The company that I used to work for, you didn't know anything."
Conuma is now hiring an additional 220 people to restart the Wolverine mine on Jan. 2, with plans to reopen the third by summer 2017.
While Strang is happy to be working at Brule as a truck driver, she hopes to return to her original post at Wolverine because it would make for a shorter commute.
Either way, she's happy to once again be working in the community she calls home.
With files from George Baker.
For more stories from northern British Columbia, join the CBC Daybreak North community on Facebook.