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Decline portal construction at the Murray River Project in Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

HD Mining

A B.C. coal project that generated controversy over its plans to hire temporary foreign workers is being mothballed at least temporarily, with future operations hinging on test drilling results, environmental approvals and market conditions.

That means the 51 temporary foreign workers hired for HD Mining's Murray River project over the past couple of years have left Tumbler Ridge and returned to China, marking the end of a journey that launched a federal court case and helped spur reforms to Canada's temporary foreign worker program.

HD Mining has completed a bulk sample program and the extracted coal sample "is being tested for coal quality and marketability," Jody Shimkus, HD Mining's vice-president of environment and regulatory affairs, said Monday in an e-mail.

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The mine site, about 12 kilometres south of Tumbler Ridge, is being put into "care and maintenance" until it receives required federal environmental approvals, provincial mine permits and market conditions improve, she said, adding that all foreign workers on the project have returned home.

Global prices for metallurgical coal, used in making steel, and thermal coal, used to generate electricity, have been in a slump in recent years, resulting in some B.C. mines scaling back operations and others closing permanently.

The Murray River project came under a spotlight over the proponent's plans to hire up to 201 workers from China to carry out a bulk sample at the site. A job posting for work at the mine included Mandarin as a language requirement, further inflaming the controversy.

At the time, HD Mining said it needed Chinese workers with experience in a method known as longwall mining.

Longwall mining is a process during which a long wall of coal is mined in a single slice, rather than the "room-and-pillar" method more widely used in Canadian coal mines.

Two B.C. unions challenged that plan by asking the Federal Court of Canada to overturn documents known as labour market opinions that were issued by the federal government and cleared the way for the Chinese workers to come to British Columbia. During the case, lawyers for the labour groups questioned whether the employer could have found Canadian workers to fill the positions and raised other concerns, including whether a "predominantly Mandarin" workplace would make it more difficult for the company to hire Canadian workers.

HD Mining responded that it had a plan in place to transition to Canadian workers, although the company expected it would take 10 years until temporary foreign workers were no longer needed.

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In a May, 2013, decision, the Federal Court dismissed the unions' application, finding that the officer who issued the labour market opinions "did not make any unreasonable assessment" when issuing the documents.

But the case, brought by Local 115 of the International Union of Operating Engineers and Local 1611 of the Construction and Specialized Workers' Union, added to scrutiny of Canada's temporary foreign worker program.

In 2014, the Conservative government split the program in two, resulting in the International Mobility Program aimed at more highly skilled workers, and made other changes to the program, including caps on how many foreign workers could be hired.

The Liberal government has said it plans to review the changes, which have been criticized by both business and labour interests.

British Columbia gave its approval last October for the Murray River project when it issued an environmental assessment certificate.

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