Northern B.C. mines not set in stone

Mandarin not required for potential mines, MLA says. But skills to work in underground coal mines are increasingly rare in Canada.

Temporary foreign workers are necessary to ensure investment in B.C.’s mining industry, says MLA Bill Bennett.

Bennett, also Minister for Community, Sport and Cultural Development, said temporary foreign workers from China will be brought in to do initial samples at proposed coal mines in northern B.C. that will utilize longwall mining techniques. Once the sampling has been done and should the mine go ahead, Bennett said the provincial government will look at ensuring Canadian miners can fill the jobs longterm.

“There will be no opportunity, no need to train anyone, unless this bulk sample is taken and a decision made to build the mine — and that can’t happen without these temporary foreign workers,” Bennett said.

The jobs were posted by HD Mining, Canadian Kailuan Dehua Mines, and Canadian Dehua International Mines Group. The United Steelworkers have slammed the provincial government for not ensuring B.C. residents were eligible for the job. They point to a job application dated October 12 that required workers speak Mandarin.

“Never in the history of Canadian mining have we ever seen a requirement to speak Mandarin mentioned in a posting for a job in a Canadian mine,” said Steve Hunt, the Steelworkers’ Western Canadian director. “A requirement like that automatically eliminates the vast majority of Canadian job applicants from consideration.”

But Bennett said that simply isn’t the case.

“The company is not requiring Mandarin as a condition of employment,” he said.

The Health, Safety and Reclamation Code of B.C. which governs the province’s mine industry, says that all fire bosses and shift bosses are required to be conversant with the English language to be issued a competency certificate to work in a B.C. mine. The code also says no person will be issued a valid blasting certificate without being able to give and receive orders in English.

The B.C. Ministry of Mines confirmed that is the case with all proposed mines in B.C., and there will be no exemptions for these operations.

“The province under the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in B.C. requires underground coal mine managers and foremen (fire bosses) to be fluent in the English language and pass an examination in English,” said a ministry spokesperson.

“Longwall mining is an underground coal mining method. Fire bosses will not be exempt from the English language requirements.”

There are now only two underground coal mines left in the country — one on Vancouver Island and the other in Alberta.

“Canada has no surplus underground coal mine workers because the industry has almost died out,” Bennett said. “The skills required for underground coal mine workers are extremely different from open pit coal mine jobs and even quite distinct from underground metal mines. It takes a minimum of two years training and many more years than that for the more specialized jobs.”

NDP candidate for Kootenay East Norma Blissett said the lack of workers qualified for underground coal mines stems from the B.C. Liberal government’s lack of investment in training skilled workers.

“Under the Liberals we’ve had a decade where we’ve failed to educate skilled workers,” she said. “We’re mining other countries of their skilled workers. We want those high paying jobs for our people.”

Blissett said northern B.C. is experiencing a 10 per cent unemployment rate.

“We have people who need jobs — but they need training,” she said.

Mining coal underground can be a dangerous occupation because of the explosiveness of coal dust and build-ups of methane gas.

“Only experienced underground coal mine workers can do this

dangerous work and Canada has none,” Bennett said.

The World Coal Association has said that fatalities in underground coal mine operations in China are “unacceptably high, particularly due to the number of unregulated small coal mines that have operated in recent years.” As of August 31, there have been 62 fatalities in Chinese coal mines.

Bennett said he has seen first hand the commitment to safety in Chinese mines.

“China has lots of small family-operated coal mines that are dangerous,” Bennett admitted. “They also have some of the safest mines in the world. I toured one in 2006.”

Blissett said if the mine goes forward, mine inspectors must be able to communicate with the work force to properly do their jobs.

“We need to ensure that those safety concerns are met before this goes ahead,” she said.

With the industry shifting due to higher prices of metallurgical coal, more companies are beginning to explore underground mining in Canada, Bennett said.

“The considerable extra cost of building and operating underground coal mines versus surface mines is now worth it and many mining exploration companies have been drilling and exploring for underground opportunities,” he said.

The temporary foreign workers will be sinking a shaft down to collect a bulk sample, which will determine the viability of a new mine.

“The temporary foreign workers will take four to six months to extract the bulk sample,” Bennett said. “Then the company will assess the quality of the coal and will make a decision as to whether to invest the hundreds of millions required to build an underground coal mine.”

Bennett said that if the mine goes ahead, Canadians will be trained for the jobs.

“If B.C. does get an underground coal mine – and that is still very much unknown – we will be training Canadian workers to take the jobs. It makes no sense to invest tax dollars in training underground coal mine workers before we know we have an underground coal mine.”

Bennett said temporary foreign workers are important to Canada’s economy.

“There are tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers working in Canada today,” he said. “Our ski hills couldn’t survive without them – neither could parts of the agriculture industry.”

In the case of the northern B.C. mines, Bennett said the workers will only be in the country for four to six months, not 10 years as has been predicted by the NDP opposition.

Blissett said she questions how long the workers will actually be in the province.

“There’s been estimates that these people could be here three to four years,” she said.

The first wave of

temporary foreign workers was set to arrive by the end of the month, part of 200 that will work in northern B.C. altogether.