The Return of King Coal: The Mining Industry Isn't Finished with Fernie, BC

Article excerpt

BRITISH COLUMBIA Mines Inspector Archibald Dick reported "everything in good order" in the tunnels and galleries of the colliery deep beneath Coal Creek. King Coal was going to provide a safe and prosperous future for the little Rocky Mountain town, tucked into the southeastern wedge of British Columbia bounded by Alberta and Montana. The government man signed his reassuring report on May 20, 1902. (1) Two days later, Coal Creek's Number 2 pit exploded, killing 128 miners.

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The culprit was "fire damp," the coalminers' constant dread. This gas could blast them to bits when ignited by a faulty lamp, or even by a summer lightning strike arcing along the steel rails that ran from the tunnel portal to the coal face. The miners' own picks, drills and dynamite released the killer gas from the sodden coal seams. For millions of years, it had been bonded to the coal by the pressure of subterranean water. "Fire damp" is almost pure methane, the main ingredient of what is benignly called "natural gas" today.

Mining ceased at Coal Creek near the end of the 1950s with the scrapping of Canada's coal-burning steam locomotives. Later, a new market would emerge, in Japan and Korea, for the high-grade coal of the Rockies, which is cooked with iron ore to make steel. Most modern mining for such metallurgical coal takes place not underground but high in the sky. Massive mechanical shovels literally move mountains to get at the porous, black mineral that originated as peat eons ago, when the region was a flat, sweltering swamp of accumulating vegetation.

Coal Creek was spared the indignity of mountaintop strip mining. That takes place further up the Elk River Valley, along the continental divide separating British Columbia from Alberta. Grizzly bears, elk, lynx and cougar have reclaimed the valley around Coal Creek, nearly half a century since the last mining families moved ten kilometres downstream to the town of Fernie where the creek empties into the Elk River. The stream itself runs clear and pure again, providing spawning sites for runs of cutthroat trout and nesting grounds for harlequin ducks that fly in from the coast each spring. So healed is the Coal Creek ecosystem that Tembec, the progressive timber company that owns the land above the old mines, came to an agreement with the Nature Conservancy of Canada late last year to instate a ten-year moratorium on selling any land for development. During that interval, the company and the conservation group would decide how best to guarantee in perpetuity the ecological health of this critical keystone of the Yellowstone-to-Yukon corridor.

The conservation deal was greeted enthusiastically in Fernie, a community that had successfully defied the usual fate of old mining towns by converting its grit into glitter. It has become a destination resort for skiers, anglers, hikers and golfers from around the world. Milliondollar homes rise on the flanks of Mount Fernie and the Lizard Range, with commanding views of Coal Creek Valley on the opposite side of the Elk River. But even as Tembec, the Nature Conservancy and the town celebrated the conservation deal, the shadow of King Coal once again darkened the valley.

Coal-bed methane

Last autumn, under order from ChevronTexaco's global headquarters in San Ramon, California, a convoy of rigs and attendant drilling gear slinked up Coal Creek Valley. There was no public announcement from the company, nor from the provincial government, just a casual call to the town of Fernie advising that some heavy equipment would be passing through town and asking whether the company could purchase a few tankerloads of tap water to lubricate its drill holes. After poking three test bores into the flanks of the valley, ChevronTexaco slipped away as silently as it had come, with most of Fernie's 5000 residents unaware it had ever been there. The company explains its stealth as a matter of competitive secrecy. …