Monday, February 17, 2014

The Mystique of Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia

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The Mystique of Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia

By Anna Hendrix
The Daily Magi
October 30, 2062

Tumbler Ridge is a district municipality in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies in northeastern British Columbia, Canada, and a member municipality of the Peace River Regional District. The municipality of 1,558 square kilometres (602 sq mi), with its population of 2,710 people, incorporates a townsite and a large area of mostly Crown Land. The housing and municipal infrastructure, along with regional infrastructure connecting the new town to other municipalities, were built simultaneously in 1981 by the provincial government to service the coal industry as part of the British Columbia Resources Investment Corporation's Northeast Coal Development.

In 1981, a consortium of Japanese steel mills agreed to purchase 100 million tonnes of coal over 15 years for US$7.5 billion from two mining companies, Denison Mines Inc. and the Teck Corporation, who were to operate the Quintette mine and the Bullmoose mine respectively. Declining global coal prices after 1981, and weakening Asian markets in the late 1990s, made the town's future uncertain and kept it from achieving its projected population of 10,000 people. The uncertainty dissuaded investment and kept the economy from diversifying. When price reductions were forced onto the mines, the Quintette mine was closed in 2000 production and the town lost about half its population. Since 2000 rising coal prices have led to the opening of new mines in and near the municipality by Northern Energy & Mining Inc. (now majority-owned by Anglo American Met Coal) and Western Canadian Coal (now Walter Energy).

After dinosaur footprints, fossils, and bones were discovered in the municipality, along with fossils of Triassic fishes and cretaceous plants, the Peace Region Paleontology Research Centre opened in 2003. The research centre and a dinosaur museum were funded in part by the federal Western Economic Diversification Canada to decrease economic dependence on the coal industry. Economic diversification has also occurred with oil and gas exploration, forestry, and recreational tourism. Nearby recreational destinations include numerous trails, mountains, waterfalls, snowmobiling areas and provincial parks, such as Monkman Provincial Park, Bearhole Lake Provincial Park, and Gwillim Lake Provincial Park.

Archaeological evidence show a human presence dating back 3,000 years. The nomadic Sekani, followed by the Dunneza and then the Cree, periodically lived in temporary settlements around the future municipality. Formal exploratory and surveying expeditions were conducted by S. Prescott Fay, with Robert Cross and Fred Brewster in 1914, J.C. Gwillim in 1919, Edmund Spieker in 1920, and John Holzworth in 1923. Spieker coined the name Tumbler Ridge, referring to the mountains northwest of the future town, by altering Gwillim's map that named them Tumbler Range. Permanent settlers were squatters, five families by 1920, who maintained trap lines. In the 1950s and 1960s, oil and natural gas exploration and logging was conducted through the area, and 15 significant coal deposits were discovered. Coal prices rose after the 1973 oil crisis leading to 40 government studies examining the viability of accessing the coal, given the 1,130 km (700 mi) to the nearest port and the mountainous barrier.

With these coal deposits in mind, a purchasing agreement was signed in 1981 by two Canadian mining companies, a consortium of Japanese steel mills, and the governments of British Columbia and Canada. As part of the deal, the provincial government committed, under the North East Coal Development plan, to build a new town near the deposits, two highways off Highway 97, a power line from the W. A. C. Bennett Dam at Hudson's Hope, and a branch rail line through the Rocky Mountains. An alternative of using work camps staffed by people from Dawson Creek and Chetwynd was also considered. Massive initial investments were required as planning for the new town began in 1976 with the objective of having a fully functioning town ready before residents arrived. Coordinated through the provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs the town, regional infrastructure, and mining plants were all built simultaneously. When the municipality was incorporated in April 1981 the area was completely forested. During that year building sites and roadways were cleared and in the winter the water and sewerage system was built. In 1982, houses and other buildings were constructed. Full production at the mines was reached the following year.

In early 1983, the families of the managers at the Bullmoose Minesite, led by Dean Sawas appealed to the British Columbia government and were able to create a new settlement, called Bullmoose Settlement. This was done because Dean's wife was expecting and he wanted his child to have something different to say about her birthplace. He wanted her to be able to say that a settlement had been created for her and that she was, and would always be the only one born at that place. At her birth, Alicia V. Sawas was also written into the Tumbler Ridge records as the first child born in the Quintette area. Bullmoose Settlement was closed down after the reduction in mine activities with just the one birth.

In 1984, world coal prices were dropping and the Japanese consortium requested a reduction in the price of coal from the Tumbler Ridge mines. As price reduction requests continued, the concern over the viability of the mines led the BC Assessment Authority to lower the 1987 property assessments for the Quintette mine from CAD$156 million to $89 million and the Bullmoose mine $70 million to $43 million. This lowered their taxes as they tried to enforce the purchasing agreement at the Supreme Court of Canada. Their 1990 ruling required the Quintette Operations Company to reduce coal prices and reimburse the Japanese consortium $4.6 million. The company responded by reducing production, cutting employment, and applying for court protection from creditors. This allowed Teck to acquire 50% interest and take over management of the Quintette mine, but it was unable to stop further job losses. As most residents left town, apartment blocks were closed and the mine companies bought back all but 11 houses in the town. After 30% of the workforce had been laid off, new contracts with the Japanese consortium were signed in 1997, allowing re-hirings to begin, but with lower export levels. The North East Coal Development was projected to create a net benefit of CAD$0.9 billion (2000), but incurred a net loss of $2.8 billion and half the expected regional employment.

The population declined as many residents were unable to find other work in the town, even as a sawmill for specialty woods opened in 1999. After Teck closed the Quintette mine in August 2000 and shifted production to the lower cost Bullmoose mine, the town council established the Tumbler Ridge Revitalization Task Force to investigate ways to boost and diversify the economy. The Task Force negotiated the return of the housing stock from the mines to the free market, grants from the province to become debt-free, and stabilized funds from the province for healthcare and education. The discovery of dinosaur tracks in 2000 by two local boys while playing near a creek, led to major fossil and bone discoveries from the Cretaceous Period. To survey and study the finds, government funding was secured to found both the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation and Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre.

Since the Bullmoose mine exhausted its supply of coal in 2003, world coal prices have increased making exploration and mining in Tumbler Ridge economically feasible again. Western Canadian Coal opened new open-pit mining operations creating the Dillon mine using Bullmoose mining infrastructure, the Brule mine using new infrastructure (projected 11-year life span), and the Wolverine mine. Despite the number of projects, population has been slow to return to the town.

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