A Chinese company's underground metallurgical coal mine has received its B.C. environmental assessment certificate, with a plan to increase employment of B.C. workers over the 25-year life of the mine.
HD Mining International's Murray River project near Tumbler Ridge would be the first in Canada to use "long-wall" mining, a highly automated process using rotary shears running along a track to extract coal from seams too deep for open-pit mining.
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The project was subject to a bitter court battle during its exploration phase, after HD brought in 200 temporary foreign workers to collect a bulk sample to test the viability of the deposit.
A Federal Court judge dismissed claims by two unions in 2013 that HD had not made sufficient efforts to recruit Canadians. At the time, HD chairman Penggui Yan called the lawsuit a "politically motivated attack by big labour" to make the foreign worker program a provincial and federal election issue.
Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said the mine still requires permits, but it has cleared the "biggest hurdle" and is working with the province's newly established major mines permitting office.
Bennett said Murray River represents a chance to establish a new industry in B.C. Metallurgical coal would be sent by rail to Prince Rupert for export to Asia.
"If they decide to build their mine, and it looks like there's a good chance that they're going to, they will train Canadians to work in the mine and ultimately you'll have over 700 Canadian people working in that underground coal mine operation," Bennett said.
With metallurgical coal prices low and open-pit mines in the Tumbler Ridge region shut down, the pace of local hiring is a sensitive issue. HD signed an agreement with Northern Lights College to train miners in long-wall techniques, and its filings for environmental assessment suggest that while more than half the initial workforce would be foreign at startup, Canadians would make up most of the workforce in 10 years.
NDP energy and mines critic Norm Macdonald said the project is too reliant on foreign workers for too long.
"These should be projects that provide employment for Canadians first, and particularly for a community that has so many mines shut down," Macdonald said.