At around 5 p.m. on Sept. 21, crews at the Brule Mine in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains hauled a load of coal out of the earth.
With that, Tumbler Ridge was once again a mining town.
Less than a month after Walter Energy’s Northeast B.C. mines sold at bankruptcy auction, and nearly two years after the last mine closed, people in Tumbler Ridge are left to marvel at their speedy reversal of fortune.
After sitting idle for nearly two years, the Brule Mine was the first up and running. By Oct. 1, 40,000 tonnes of coal had been taken out of the pits. By mid-October, the coal is set to be on a train for Prince Rupert, where it will be shipped to steelmakers in Asia.
Trevor Corsi, one of the first workers hired back at the mine, said many were still stunned by how quickly things turned around.
“We had orientation on Friday and we were mining on Monday,” he said.
For Mark Bartkoski, president of Conuma Coal Resources, the mine’s new owner, it’s a turnaround unlike anything he’s seen in the coal business.
“Usually a closing process on an acquisition this size is a four to six month process,” he said. “This was basically a month-and-a-half, which is extremely unusual.”
The mine is still ramping up to full production. Conuma, a member of West Virginia-based ERP group of companies, plans to hire 170 people to run the mine—fewer than Walter employed.
The company, which is not publicly traded, plans to run a lean operation and avoid the debt financing that doomed many larger coal companies.
Conuma's unique business model includes “bundling” coal sales with carbon offsets. Bartkoski and ERP CEO Ken McCoy are devout Baptists who say their goal is to be a “blessing” to hard-hit coal communities.
While far from a complete turnaround, the reopening of at least one mind has improved morale in Tumbler Ridge.
Derek Blackwell, now the prevention director with Conuma, was one of the handful left behind when Walter’s mines were placed in “care and maintenance” after a drop in prices.
He recalled waiting for the go-ahead to restart production last month.
“We were up here in the pit with all the groups and the first crew,” he said. “When we got word from the B.C. ministry and all the lawyers with both parties that it had been signed, I think it was less than a minute or two before the first coal was loaded.”
Bartkoski said production was able to restart so quickly due to a contract mining agreement with Walter Canada, which owned the three mines until Conuma purchased them Sept. 9.
“I’ve never seen anyone try to pull it off like that,” he said. “Walter Canada was extremely good to work with on that. They could have bowed up and said ‘we’re not going to do that, it’s just a clean sale.’ The ministry, the same way. It would have been far easier for everyone if we had just done it traditionally and had a two- to six-month hiatus while waiting on the permit transfers. A lot of different agencies and groups that don’t normally work together, in this case very much did.”
Part of the hurry to get the mines up and running was due to surging metallurgical prices. However, Conuma was looking at Walter’s mines before prices came up, Bartkoski said.
“One of the things is to try to catch this market, whether it’s up artificially or not, you always want to catch it when it’s there” he said. “But because we didn’t know the market was going to do that, that was not the driver.”
He said the initial goal was to get the mines going as soon as possible to recoup closing costs, as well as get people back to work.
The company plans to reopen the Wolverine Mine next, which would employ another 180 people. After that, the Willow Creek Mine could restart as early as 2017.
For Blackwell, who’s lived in Tumbler Ridge since after the last downturn in the early 2000s, the biggest change has been seeing the return of people who had to leave town for jobs in oil and gas camps.
“It’s definitely an optimistic place right now for sure,” he said. “People are real happy to see people coming back and getting jobs, and pulling back the fathers and brothers and mothers who had left and been working in camp away from their families. A lot of families are back together now.”