[B.C. Mining History] Interest Returns to northeastern coalfields – by Ed Kimura (Mineral Exploration – Spring 2011)


Rising Prices Fuel Regional Revitalization Hopes

A major milestone in the development of British Columbia’s northeast coal resources was achieved on Jan. 23, 1981 with the announcement of agreements whereby a consortium of 12 Japanese companies would purchase 94 million tons(short) of metallurgical coal and 16 million tons of thermal coal over a 15-year period commencing in October 1983.

The announcement triggered the co-ordination of the largest industrial development and construction project in B.C. history. The project would involve the construction of Denison Mines’ Quintette and Teck Corporation’s Bullmoose open-pit coal mines.

The federal and B.C. governments committed to fund the construction and development of various phases of the project, including construction of Tumbler Ridge townsite to accommodate the projected workforce, constructing a 127-km power line and highway system to the mines and Tumbler Ridge, constructing and upgrading the railway and related infrastructure to transport coal from the mine sites to tidewater, and developing the proposed Ridley Island coal-handling facilities at Prince Rupert.

The two mining companies and the Japanese consortium were negotiating the base price for coal at about $76 per ton. For the then-Social Credit provincial government, under the leadership of Bill Bennett, the grand scheme of this huge project was also visualized as the dawn of a new era for opening and developing northern British Columbia. Providing access and infrastructure would improve the logistics for developing potentially new mining, forestry, oil and gas ventures and their spin-off businesses.

The coal occurrences in the Peace River region of B.C. have been known for more than two centuries as the original discovery was made in 1793. The coal seams occur principally in the complexly folded and thrust-faulted Lower Cretaceous sedimentary sequences of the Gething and Gates formations. This belt extends for 400 kilometres along the northwesterly trending foothills of the Rocky Mountains of northeastern British Columbia. Four to six coal seams ranging from one to 10 metres thick are developed in the sedimentary formations.

Early reports of exploratory drilling and sampling on several coal properties in the northeast coalfield were recorded between 1951 and 1969. These exploration programs were undoubtedly in response to the rising demand for metallurgical coal as steel production, led by Japan, was rapidly expanding by the mid-’60s.

Teck Corporation and Denison Coal Limited were systematically exploring the Sukunka Bullmoose and Quintette properties, respectively. By 1975, coal exploration was effectively booming in northeastern B.C. as new capital, notably from oil companies and overseas trading companies, was being poured into a number of properties along the trend of the coalfield.

Major exploration programs were being undertaken on properties such as Saxon, Bellcourt, Monkman, Mount Spieker and Duke Mountain. Advanced-stage exploration programs on the Quintette and Bullmoose properties were successful in defining major resources of medium- to low-volatile bituminous coal – suitable for production of metallurgical coke.

The reserves of the northeast coalfield in 1981 were estimated at 336 million tonnes of which 286 million tonnes were classified as metallurgical coal. These reserve figures are not allocated to specific properties, and as a result, in addition to Quintette and Bullmoose, reserve estimates from other properties could be included in the total estimate.

Following the announcement of the Northeast Coal Development Plan in January 1981, Teck Corporation’s Bullmoose project and Denison Mines’ Quintette project were developed. The two projects were designed to ship a combined 6.7 million tonnes per year of metallurgical coal over a 15-year period starting in October 1983. Teck’s Bullmoose mine operated continuously since production commenced in 1983 until its closure in 2003. Six coal seams varying in thickness from 1.8 to 4.8 metres were developed for production.

The mine was initially designed to produce 1.7 million tonnes per year and was subsequently increased to 2.3 million tonnes per year as detailed evaluations indicated significant economic upsides for a larger scale operation. During its
20-year -mine life, it shipped 32 million tonnes of metallurgical coal to overseas steel producers. The mine closed on April 4, 2003.

The Quintette mine, managed by Denison Coal Limited with partners Mitsui Mining Company, Tokyo Boeki Limited and Charbonnages De France, started production in 1983 at a designed rate of 6.5 million tonnes per year. Coal was mined from four main seams ranging in thickness from 0.9 to eight metres.

The mine experienced difficulties in maintaining the production rates, and in 1991-’92, the operation underwent a debt restructuring. During this process, Teck Corporation acquired a 50 per cent interest and became the mine operator. The mine, however, continued to struggle to sustain a profitable margin despite negotiating a new contract with the Japanese consortium in 1997. In February 2000, Teck announced plans to close the mine in August of that year.

Establishing the town of Tumbler Ridge became one of the focal points of activity when the plans were set in motion to proceed with the development of the Bullmoose and Quintette mines and related infrastructure. Preliminary plans and general layout for a town for a projected population of 10,000 were already being prepared as early as 1976.

The proposed townsite location was selected at the junction of the Murray and Wolverine rivers and site clearing, construction of building sites, roadways, water and sewer systems were quickly completed in 1981. Houses and service buildings were constructed in the following year and by 1983, the once remote wilderness location was transformed into a vibrant bustling town as the two coal mines attained full production.

A school and recreation centre opened in 1984. The town’s population peaked at 4,800 people in 1991 then hit a low of 1,932 in 2001 as coal prices declined. The Quintette mine closed in August 2000, and Bullmoose production and staff were reduced until the mine’s reserves were exhausted by 2003. As the population dwindled, the remaining residents formed a task force to investigate ways and means to boost and diversify the economy for the town and surrounding region.

This effort resulted in attracting tourists with the discovery of dinosaur fossils in the area and creating outdoor recreation activities. Employment opportunities in the forest, oil and gas industries were also becoming available. These developments were vital to the town’s survival.

A spark for revitalizing the region’s economy has been evident in the past few years as world coal prices have recovered since the closure of the two mines. Most recently, contract coal prices are in the order of US$200 to $225 (about C$198 to $224) per tonne, with spot prices for top grade coking coal at $250 per tonne.

With the recovery of coal prices, Western Coal Corp. has been very active in the northeast coalfi eld. It is currently producing coal from the Perry Creek open-pit mine on the Wolverine property located 30 kilometres from Tumbler Ridge. It also operates the Brule and Willow Creek open-pit mines. Peace River Coal has been operating the Trend mine since December 2005. Other properties in the region are actively being explored and evaluated.

Most notably, Western Coal and Peace River Coal are jointly exploring the Belcourt and Saxon properties. Western Coal is planning to develop the EB and Herman projects, as well as conducting evaluations to either expand the Perry Creek open pit or develop an underground mine to recover the coal seam extensions. Peace River Coal is considering the development of the Roman Mountain and Horizon projects, both of which are within 10 kilometres of the Trend mine.

Additionally, Teck Resources Limited is evaluating the possibility of reopening the Quintette mine. This renewed activity in the region has been a welcome signal for the residents of Tumbler Ridge and its anticipated future growth.

Tumbler Ridge: Rich in history

In addition to the magnificent mountain wilderness, with 30 hiking trails and spectacular waterfalls, visitors to Tumbler Ridge are rewarded with a peek into its very and not-so distant past.

The Tumbler Ridge Museum comprises two distinct themes. The first relates to palaeontology. The Tumbler Ridge area has become famous for its remarkable fossil discoveries and resources, exhibited in the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery, which adjoins the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre – the only facility of its kind in British Columbia.

Visitors are treated to exhibits of dinosaurs, marine reptiles, fish and a host of other denizens of the area from the distant past. The region is particularly rich in dinosaur footprints, and a large exhibit recreates the type of environment in which these creatures roamed. Tumbler Ridge also boasts the first dinosaur excavations in B.C. and exhibits are regularly revised to incorporate the latest discoveries.

The coal that is prevalent in the area is the compressed, slow-cooked remains of the Cretaceous forests in which the dinosaurs tramped. For this reason some of the finest footprint assemblages are found in the local coal mines beside the coal seams. Thousands of footprints have been reported to the museum by the mines, with whom an excellent working relationship is maintained. Future exhibits will examine this relationship more closely.

There is a gift shop, and visitors also have the opportunity to participate in a variety of educational programs or to go on dinosaur trackway tours, including unique lantern tours. The second theme relates to the more recent history of the area, displayed by means of 30 exhibits in the Tumbler Ridge Community Centre.

Archaeology, First Nations heritage, pioneer history, natural history, the creation of Tumbler Ridge, early exploration, the coal mines, historic maps and the local Sports Hall of Fame are some of the topics covered. Admission to the Community Centre exhibits is free.

For the original source of this article, click here: http://www.amebc.ca/documents/resources-and-publications/publications/archive/MinEx/MinExSpring2011.pdf