Wednesday 26th October 2016

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B.C.’s longwall controversy

HD Mining says it will hire Canadians after all—if they want the jobs

by Greg Klein

Has there been a change of plans? Or was it a misunderstanding all along?

A veteran politician now working for HD Mining International says the company intends to hire and train Canadian longwall miners for what will be, should its proposed coal mine go into production, an English-speaking operation. He wonders, however, how many Canadians would be interested.

That qualification notwithstanding, his statements seem to differ substantially from the company’s original position, which ignited a controversy beginning in October 2012.

Saying too few Canadians had longwall mining experience, HD Mining received federal government approval to import 201 Chinese miners. The plan, as reported by media and the company itself, was to staff underground operations at its proposed Murray River mine in northeastern British Columbia with Mandarin-speaking Chinese workers for 10 years. The company, owned by Mandarin-speaking Chinese, insisted that only Mandarin-speaking Chinese knew its longwall system.

HD Mining says it will hire Canadians after all—if they want the jobs

A longwall shearer with cutting drums and
movable hydraulic roof supports called shields.

But Blair Lekstrom, an adviser to HD Mining chairperson Penggui Yan, says the company’s intentions have been misunderstood.

The project’s underground staff now consists of 51 Chinese recruited under Canada’s temporary foreign worker (TFW) program. They’re currently building a decline to conduct a bulk sample that will take about 18 months to complete, Lekstrom tells Should the company go into commercial production, “we’ve made a commitment to train—and we’re in discussions with Northern Lights College—Canadians who want to do this work.” He says the current crew was granted TFW status only to conduct the “highly specialized” bulk sample.

“Chairman Yan has said we will train as many Canadians who want to work in our mine, but first we have to prove there is a mine.”

In November 2012, after about six weeks of critical publicity, the company signed a memorandum of understanding with Northern Lights College in the town of Tumbler Ridge to develop a longwall training program. Lekstrom says the curriculum would be developed following a decision to operate a mine.

Several American operations use longwall mining. But the companies themselves provide specialized training, according to Marlon Whoolery, training director at the Mining Technology and Training Center, which has campuses in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. “I don’t know of any training facility that trains specifically to work on the longwall because there’s various types of longwall machines, various shields, panels, shears, different stage loaders, different tailgates. Most training centres prepare a miner to go to work at the mine then the coal company trains them to the longwall system they have.”

He says U.S. federal law requires a minimum of 40 hours’ training before a novice can work underground, while some states require longer periods. The length of time to become a certified miner also varies from one state to another. West Virginia requires six months of experience while Pennsylvania requires a year.

During that time, specialized training “could be a matter of weeks or months to run a particular portion of the longwall,” Whoolery adds. “To be the shear operator in Pennsylvania you have to have machine operator’s papers in the state and it takes a year underground before you can apply for those.”

Whoolery doesn’t know of any American parallels to the HD Mining controversy. He says Massey Energy threatened to import Mexican workers years ago. The company, associated with the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 people, was later bought out by Alpha Natural Resources NYE:ANR.

“I don’t believe there’s any mine in this country that brings miners in from somewhere else. I’m not saying there’s not mines, especially out west, that may have immigrants that are in this country illegally but I don’t know of any mine that solely operates with a workforce that they brought from another country.”

But Lekstrom insists that never was HD Mining’s intention. “Our goal is to hire and train Canadian workers that will work there and English will be the prevailing language.” Mandarin will “absolutely not” be the working language, he emphasizes.

I talk to a lot of people up here and a lot of my friends, and not many of them seem anxious about thinking underground mining might be in their future.—Blair Lekstrom,
HD Mining adviser

Lekstrom maintains there’s been no change in policy. “They’ve made that commitment from the beginning.” As for impressions to the contrary, “I would say it was a misconception.”

But any “misconception” was understandable. In October 2012 Jody Shimkus, HD Mining’s VP of environmental and regulatory affairs, told the company would likely need a decade to train a Canadian underground crew. “We’ve set a target of 10 years, recognizing that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done particularly with the local community, the educational institutions and the provincial government to develop a program that transfers the skill set. If we can achieve that target earlier, that would be great.”

Lekstrom, a former B.C. mines minister and mayor of Dawson Creek, suggests there’s a discriminatory aspect to the controversy. “Because [the TFWs] are Chinese they seem to be looked at different than the Australians, many who are over here working in mines.” He says an Anglo American project, also in the Peace River region, employs Australian TFWs. A inquiry to Anglo American’s Vancouver branch was referred to the company’s Brisbane office too late for a response by press time.

Murray River benefits Canadians, Lekstrom says. “We have spent to date about $90 million. The vast majority of that is on Canadian content. Most of the work that has been done to date has been done by Canadian workers—ground service prep whether it be fuel services, road services, hauling and trucking, drilling and blasting, surveying, the list is long.”

His remarks follow months of controversy over alleged abuse of Canada’s TFW program by companies importing staff ranging from fast food workers to helicopter pilots. Then, last month, Walter Energy NYE:WLT announced 695 layoffs for two open pit mines in the same region as Murray River. A week later Teck Resources TCK.A announced another 80 layoffs for the region, as the company postponed the restart of its Quintette open pit operations.

Still, Lekstrom wonders how many Canadians want underground jobs. “I talk to a lot of people up here and a lot of my friends, and not many of them seem anxious about thinking underground mining might be in their future. We’ll see.”

Canada’s Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney has announced plans to reform the TFW program. An e-mail from his department didn’t answer questions from about how the reforms might affect HD Mining’s 201 approved applications.

May 8, 2014, update: Details about temporary foreign workers in Canadian mines remain elusive.

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