Sept/Oct 2012

Voices from Industry

Raising a stink

By John K. Nixon

Last May, I found myself in a conference room at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Vancouver, attending a CIM Vancouver Branch luncheon. John Tapics, president and CEO of Compliance Energy Corp., was set to speak about the company’s Raven underground coal project in Comox Valley. Seated at my table was Lisa, a first-year university mining engineering student. After the initial introductions, we dug into our meal.

After lunch, Tapics began his presentation. He revealed the Raven mine would be an underground operation, mining coal seams 20 kilometres south of Courtenay. As he spoke, I recalled stumbling on a country fair south of Courtenay on a summer vacation. In a farmer’s field, dozens of tents and vendors’ stalls promoting natural foods, homeopathic medicines, handmade jewellery and tie-dyed tee shirts were interspersed with fortune tellers, pony rides and games for children.

According to Tapics, Raven Coal’s production would reach 1.1 million tonnes of coal per year over a 16-year mine life. Raw coal would be upgraded in a surface processing plant five kilometres from the coast, and the product would be transported over land to Port Alberni for shipping to Asia. A bankable feasibility study had been completed and environmental permitting was underway. Tables of figures flashed on the screen, summarizing the economics of the project and extolling its benefits to the local economy.

As the presentation ended, there was a commotion at the entrance to the room. Guests observed two young men walking between tables, tossing lumps of coal onto the carpet, chairs and tables, and screaming obscenities. Across the room, two young women poured a foul-smelling, lumpy, grey sludge from plastic jugs onto the carpet, splattering the clothes of nearby guests. The offending liquid was later, I believe, identified as poultry feces.

The incident was over in a minute, and the intruders hastily departed after activating the hotel’s alarm system. As guests frantically attempted to clean their clothes, the chairman hurriedly closed the meeting, offering to pay the dry cleaning bills of those affected.

Guests filed out, picking their way across sodden carpet and scattered lumps of coal, as sirens wailed. We were directed to an emergency exit leading to street level. Outside, there were fire trucks, and behind them, a HAZMAT truck approached, with specialists in hazardous materials donning white coveralls and masks.

In a world obsessed with global warming and the probable role of humans in the process, coal mining has become a flashpoint for protest. Arguments concerning the availability of renewable non-polluting energy sources, the steady decline of fossil fuels and the rising demand for energy to support a growing world population, are well-documented and constantly debated.

Surely, the solutions to these problems will be found eventually through reasoned discourse that weighs the costs and benefits of coal to society, and to the long-term health of our planet.

So, Lisa, please believe me; there are people in mining dedicated to improving our collective welfare and sustaining the environment. I only hope that, after what happened that day, you will not be discouraged from a career in mining. The industry needs more young persons of your gender to help maintain a balanced view of its responsibilities to society.

The fate of the Raven underground coal project should not be determined by outbursts of profanity and distribution of chicken manure. This is not the way to win friends and influence people – with the exception perhaps of those in the dry cleaning business!

John Nixon is a professional engineer with SNC-Lavalin Inc. in Vancouver. He has over 48 years of engineering experience, mostly in mining and metallurgy. He holds a B.Eng. degree from McGill University and an MBA from York University, and is a Life Member of CIM.

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