“This looks like a revival meeting!” Ken McCoy said as he strode to the front of the crowd at the Tumbler Ridge Community Centre.
In multiple senses of the word, it was.
Two years after the town’s last coal mine shut its doors, miners in Tumbler Ridge are headed back to work, and the man delivering them is a third-generation West Virginia coal miner and Sunday school teacher who hopes to make “mission money” shipping Tumbler Ridge’s steel-making coal to Asia.
On Sept. 15, Tumbler Ridge residents packed a hall in the town’s community centre to get a look at Conuma Coal Resources Ltd., the company which just a week earlier closed a deal to buy Walter Energy’s three shuttered mines in Northeast B.C.
The 200 people in the room cheered when McCoy announced the company’s plan to reopen the Brule Mine the following Monday.
“Six months ago, we thought we’d probably buy it and sit on it and wait for the market to come back,” he said in a West Virginia drawl. “But by the time six months rolled around, (the market) hit the floor, and it’s coming up pretty nice. Our plan is to open the mines back up as quick as we can, because we think we can make a little bit of money.”
McCoy is president and CEO of ERP Compliant Fuels, a West Virgina-based company which, according to its website, aims to reduce planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions by “bundling” carbon credits with coal sales.
In 2015, the company created Conuma Coal to run its Canadian operations. Conuma was one of 80 companies to express interest in Walter’s Northeast B.C. assets when that company declared bankruptcy.
McCoy grew up in a “coal camp” in the hills of West Virginia, and entered the business as a labourer after attending university. In 2005, he and several business partners acquired four bankrupt coal companies, turned them around, and sold them five years later to a Ukrainian steel firm.
A life-long Sunday school teacher, he’d planned to retire and pursue mission work in Nicaragua and Bolivia before getting a call from a colleague about reentering the coal world.
“We looked at it and decided well, the best thing I can do for my mission work is to get back into the coal business,” he told the crowd in Tumbler Ridge.
When ERP entered the scene, many coal companies were in a similar position as Walter Energy—struggling in a down market, hit with environmental regulations and saddled with debt. That meant many bankrupt mines that would have otherwise gone to a major publicly-traded company were ripe for the taking.
“Before, when anything came open, one of the big boys would just come in and grab it,” McCoy said. “But all the big boys were deep in debt and most of them bankrupt. When some good opportunities came along, they weren’t able to get to them.”
“The Lord blessed us to get (these mines), and we’re so appreciative,” he said.
McCoy and Conuma President Mark Bartkoski said they continue to see demand for the metallurgical, hard-coking and PCI coal found around Tumbler Ridge. Part of that comes from concerns among Chinese buyers about the future of the Australian coal supply, which have driven a rally in global met coal prices.
“The whole public perception of coal has been pretty negative, and there’s been a tremendous movement to get away from burning coal to make electricity,” McCoy said. “You can argue the good or bad of that, but we didn’t want to fight that. The people in the coal industry basically lost that argument.”
“If you’re going to make steel, you have to have met coal. You may not like met coal, but if you like steel, you have to like met coal. “
Bartkoski said the company hopes to survive downturns and protect jobs by running a “lean” operation based on low coal prices, using inexpensive extraction techniques and avoiding debt.
The plan is to reopen the Brule Mine first and hire 170 people over the next two months. The Wolverine operation could reopen in six months to a year, depending on conditions, bringing the company’s workforce to 350. Conuma still needs to develop a plan for the Willow Creek mine, which does not have a firm reopen date.
For Tumbler Ridge, which has struggled with double-digit unemployment since the mines closed in early 2015, it was the news they’d been waiting for.
“It sure brought a lot of hope to the town,” said Tumbler Ridge resident Carl Larrson. “I worked in a few mines, and this was one of the better meetings I’ve attended. We needed something positive out here. This was a test. Not everyone is going to get hired on, but this is a step in the right direction, big time.”