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

HD Mining

If the proposed Murray River coal project goes ahead, more than half of its employees would be temporary foreign workers in 2018 – potentially the first year of operation – and it would take nearly a decade for all the hourly jobs at the project to be filled by Canadians.

HD Mining has previously discussed its plan to shift from a work force that is mostly foreign to one that is mostly domestic, saying in 2013 the mine would have a "full Canadian work force" after 10 years of production.

But documents recently filed as part of an environmental-assessment process provide more detail about that transition, and an updated estimate of the cost to build the mine of $554.9-million, compared with a previous estimate of $300-million.

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According to an executive summary, the number of temporary foreign workers at the project, for which preparatory work began in 2014, would peak in 2018 at 494 – 382 hourly and 112 management employees – out of a total of 764, or nearly 65 per cent. By 2027, plans call for zero hourly foreign workers and 20 managers out of a total of 764. Those levels are projected to stay the same for the rest of the mine's life.

The environmental assessment is taking place nearly two years after HD Mining sent more than a dozen Chinese miners home in January, 2013, over uncertainty related to a high-profile court battle.

HD Mining projected employment figures

Comparing estimates for Canadian and overseas workers.

SOURCE: HD Mining

In 2012, two B.C. labour unions asked the Federal Court to overturn 201 labour-market opinions, or LMOs, that were issued to the company, arguing that it did not do enough to recruit Canadians. (Employers must obtain LMOs to hire temporary foreign workers.)

In 2013, a federal court judge dismissed the unions' case, writing in his decision that "there is nothing on the record that establishes he [the person who approved the LMOs] was wrong in his assessment that sufficient efforts had been made to recruit Canadians, either when he made that assessment or in hindsight."

That decision cleared the way for HD Mining to resume preparatory work and bring Chinese workers to Tumbler Ridge. The court proceedings also brought attention to the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which has since been overhauled.

The Murray River project, 12.5-kilometres southwest of Tumbler Ridge, would be an underground operation producing metallurgical coal for steelmaking. The coal would be extracted by longwall mining, a method that is not used in Canada but is used elsewhere, including China.

Citing safety concerns, HD Mining said it needs foreign workers because of a shortage of trained and experienced longwall miners in Canada.

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That irks the two B.C. unions.

"The whole town is basically unemployed," Brian Cochrane, business manager with Local 115 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, said on Thursday. "So if any jobs are going to be available … you want to hold people's feet to the fire and say, 'Why aren't we creating the appropriate actions so people from the local community are getting access to some of the employment?'"

Tumbler Ridge has been hit by a downturn in the coal sector, with mine closings affecting more than 1,000 jobs.

HD Mining said its project would employ hundreds of Canadians.

Currently, 48 workers from China and more than 50 Canadians are on the site, HD vice-president Jodie Shimkus said this week in an e-mail.

In addition, she said, more than 1,000 Canadians from about 200 companies have worked on the project to date, accounting for $100-million in spending "almost entirely in the community."

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A summary of concerns raised by government agencies says "social, economic and health issues" related to temporary foreign workers "need to be addressed."

The company says it has invested $15-million in worker housing, will provide English-language training and "seek to sponsor community events that serve to bring TFWs together with current Tumbler Ridge residents."

A public comment period for the assessment is open until Jan. 29.

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