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One of the first big stories I every covered in this business was the closure of Balmer North.
It was, at the time, the last large underground coal mine in the province. A small one on Vancouver Island had continued to operate, but it was not the scale of Balmer North.
It was a rather incredulous scene as big burly coal miners, complete with dust-laden coveralls, traditional coal miners’ hats, and faces, literally, as black as coal, boarded up the entrance to the mine. Whites of the eyes and flashes of teeth were the only thing on them that weren’t the same colour as their surroundings.
What was particularly striking on that day, however, was that many of the coal-covered faces were streaked with tears as the entrance to the blackest depths of the earth was covered up.
To many, it was the end of an era … a way of life … a vocation that defined them and set them apart from the rest of the world. To many, many others it was a blessing.
There are two kinds of underground coal miners – those who love it and those who hate it.
I grew up in a coal-mining town. My father worked at Balmer South, which closed a few decades before Balmer North. I know a lot of people who “worked underground.” There is a kinship amongst them similar to soldiers who head to battle.
Death is a way of life underground.
Cave-ins, bumps, and catastrophic explosions weren’t an ‘if’, they were a ‘when.’ Despite the best safety equipment and precautions, things happened in the deeps that regularly left widows topside.
Go to any coal-mining town and you’ll see memorials to those who never made it home from work.
When they closed Balmer North there was a whole gaggle of mining big-wigs there, and, if memory serves, a few cabinet ministers. Closing one of the last underground mines in the province was being hailed as a major step forward in mining in B.C.
The days of underground coal-mining were over. This extremely dangerous vocation (if death wasn’t instantaneous it was usually the slow creep of black lung) was coming to an end.
It was replaced by strip mining, which is much safer and more efficient.
Now, 20 years later, we’re looking at importing Chinese coal miners to work in an underground coal mine (for the record, the Balmer mines imported workers from England and India … however, they came to Canada to stay, not as temporary foreign workers like they’re looking at for the northeast coal mines).
There is plenty of concern and controversy over the government’s plan. The bigger issue that no one is talking about is why are we looking at getting back into the underground coal-mining business?
The skyrocketing price of coal is obviously making economic sense, but we seem to have forgotten how proud we once were to get out of this business and the high price those who “work underground” pay.