Tumbler Ridge adjusting to life without coal – again

After the closure of its last coal mine, Tumbler Ridge has the hallmarks of a boomtown entering a bust.

There are the "for sale" signs that dot the front lawns, the empty storefronts and the unplowed driveways. But for Dave Sanders, a trip to the dump really tells the tale of how tough things are.

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"It's a gold mine," said Sanders, a laid-off miner, reeling off a list of barely-used furniture and appliances dumped by people leaving town. "They're not paying to move. You look over in the metal department, you see barbeques that are fully functional."

It's been 10 months since Sanders lost his job at the Wolverine coal mine, and at times the frustration still boils over.

While smoking outside the United Steelworkers local office in Tumbler Ridge, he repeated the words a mine manager told his crew after a shift on April 15.

"'Fill out your time card. We're paying you for today, and make sure you get on the bus to town,'" said Sanders, whose nickname is Colonel. "That's it."

Sanders and a handful of laid-off miners gathered at the hall for a meeting with a Steelworkers official from Prince George, and old wounds were new again.

Workers at Wolverine weren't the first to go, and they weren't the last.

On Jan. 10, operations wrapped up at the last mine, Peace River Coal, and Tumbler Ridge ceased to be a mining town. A week later, mine owner Anglo American coal held a Farewell party for around 160 workers. 

For the second time in its 30-year history, the town is adjusting to the closure of the coal mines that are its lifeblood.

 There's anger, resignation and acceptance in Tumbler Ridge. There's also hope, and a firm belief that this downturn can't be as bad as last time.

•••

Last April, Walter Energy told 300 workers that it was ceasing operations at Wolverine amid dropping metallurgical coal prices.

Bill Hampel got the news on the way to the airport, where he was flying to Mexico for vacation.

"Ten minutes out of town I get a call that contractors are being turned away at the gate," he said. "I decided I might as well stay in Mexico longer."

That the price of the commodity that is the town's lifeblood was slipping was no secret.

In 2013, Walter Energy had curtailed operations at its Willow Creek mine, cutting back production to a skeleton crew.

Wolverine was next. The union maintains the company broke labour laws when it laid off 300 miners with what it claims was no notice.

Then in September, Anglo American announced it was ceasing operations at Peace River Coal at the end of the year.

The last crews at Peace River Coal finished idling the mine on Jan. 10, marking the start of Tumbler's latest downturn.

•••

The full extent of the damage likely won't be clear until summer.

At that time, employment insurance will have dried up for many laid off in September.

"We've been living it already for nine months," said Sanders. "We're going to have quite a haul here."

Of the 300 people who lost their jobs, Hampel estimates around half of those were fly-in workers who have already moved on.

Sanders has lived in Tumbler Ridge for decades, and knows what a downturn looks like. He shakes his head detailing the people he knows who bought trucks or signed mortgages when the warning signs were on the wall.

Much of Sanders' time is spent caring for the homes of friends who have moved, checking furnaces and fixing broken plumbing.

"I've told them I'm not going anywhere, so they've asked me if I can do a walkthrough [of their homes] at least once a month," said Sanders. "I didn't want to bail."

•••

For some, the move hasn't been away from the town, but rather within it.

Cory Williams, who rents an apartment in Tumbler Ridge, has seen rents drop as landlords try to hang on to tenants.

When he moved to Tumbler Ridge in August to be closer to his kids, a two- bedroom apartment was going for $700, down from the $1,200 he paid when he lived in town several years ago.

"[The landlady] worked with me and took my rent down to $500," he said. "It makes the most sense, instead of somebody leaving."

On a sunny day in mid-January, he was collecting cans from bins outside a gas station, wearing a blue high-visibility jacket and a balaclava covering his face.

Before he moved to Tumbler Ridge, he operated vac and water trucks in the oilpatch. The lack of work grates on him.

"What do you do every day?" he asked. "It's just really tough because there's not a whole lot to do in this town, unless you own snowmobiles. Being unemployed, it just drives a guy nuts."

The town has had scattered bits of good news. In September, UNESCO approved Tumbler Ridge's bid to become a Global Geopark — a site recognized for its geological significance.

While the geopark will highlight Tumbler Ridge's natural beauty and rich fossil record, the park itself is only looking to employ a full-time coordinator, and it will be a while before any tourism benefits trickle down. 

As Hampel summed up, "the Geopark will not put miners back to work."  

There are wind projects that could.

In mid-January, Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett announced work would begin on the Meikle Wind Power project, — the biggest wind farm in B.C. —which would employ up to 175 workers.

Meanwhile, two other shovel-ready wind projects near Tumbler Ridge have been shelved due to a lack of demand for power.

There's also HD Mining's proposed underground coal mine.

The project is controversial because of HD's request to hire temporary foreign workers. HD says that Chinese specialists are needed to bring coal into production using a technique called long wall mining. If the mine goes forward, there would be other onsite jobs for Canadians, the company says.

Business owners hope a mix of projects near town, as well as oil patch jobs and work on the Site C dam to the north, will keep people in Tumbler Ridge in the near term.

"There's already a culture of working someplace else in this town," said Charissa Tonnesen, the manager of the Tumbler Ridge Pharmacy. "You get a camp job and you're gone for two weeks or whatever."

Tonnesen bought the pharmacy in 2000, after the previous owner's husband lost his job in the first round of mine closures.

She doesn't expect this slowdown to be nearly as bad. For one, the mining companies owned many of the houses at the time, and people weren't tied to the town with mortgages. "The town was like a camp, and it just cleared out," she said.

When the last downturn began, the district took possession of hundreds of homes previously owned by the mines. They held a fire sale.

According to news reports at the time, 750 homes and 250 condos went on the block. Within three hours, 40 units had sold. Houses went for as low as $24,900, condos $9,900. Most homes went for a third of what it cost to build them.

For now, she and her customers are sticking it out.

"With the pharmacy, people are having troubles, wondering if they're going to be able to pay for their medication, wondering if we can find cheaper alternatives," she said.

Darryl Krakowka, owner of the Shop Easy grocery and a city councillor, said it's too soon to say what impact the mine closure will have on business.

"Things have slowed down, there's no doubt about that," he said. "But right after Christmas it's hard to tell. February or March will be the fair judgment."

•••

If the rest of Tumbler Ridge is in a holding pattern, Sanders, Hampel and the other miners with Wolverine are in purgatory.

Their union has taken at least two grievances to the labour relations board, claiming Walter Energy broke labour laws by laying off such a large workforce with what they say was no notice. 

Workers maintain they're entitled to more than 20 weeks of back pay. The grievances continue to wind through the legal system, and a decision likely won't be issued for months.

"It was an angry place back in April, very much so," said Dan Will, a vice president with the Steelworkers Union. "In some cases both breadwinners worked at the mine, and both lost their jobs at the same time. They're going from two quite well paying jobs to nothing."

For now, it's wait and see in Tumbler Ridge. But as employment insurance runs out and the loss of the town's main industry begins to really be felt, those who haven't already will be forced to make tough decisions. 

"I like this town, I bought a house here, I want to stay," said Hampel. "But there just aren't jobs available."       

reporter@dcdn.ca

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