(EnergyAsia, February 1 2013, Friday) — Work on developing a large coal mine in Canada’s British Columbia province is being disrupted by an on-going dispute between Vancouver-based HD Mining and unions opposed to the company’s use of temporary workers imported from China.

While stating it is committed to developing Murray River’s 688 million tonnes of proven underground coal deposits near Tumbler Ridge town, the Chinese-owned company said it needs “reasonable certainty” before adding to the C$50 million that it has already invested so far exploring the mine and building housing and other infrastructure.

Two Canadian unions have accused the company of not making the effort to find and train skilled local workers to undertake the task of developing and mining the deposits. Instead, they alleged, HD Mining is resorting to using lower-cost Chinese miners with the potential to undermine safety standards, thereby endangering themselves, the community and the environment.

After several weeks of costly litigation, court battles and bad publicity, HD Mining said it has decided to repatriate 16 of its temporary Chinese workers and will not bring in any more unless it receives “fair treatment from governments when planning and developing projects,” according to company chairman Penggui Yan.

HD Mining has defended its use of Chinese skilled workers, stating they have been specially trained to develop and mine deep deposits such as the Murray River metallurgical coal resources which are buried between 400 metres and 800 metres underground.

Mr Yan said: “In the absence of being able to find Canadians qualified and interested to do this work, we need to know we can rely on the two-year temporary foreign worker authorisations we received.”

Jody Shimkus, HD Mining’s vice president, for environmental and regulatory affairs, said the Chinese workers would have undertaken underground preparatory work for the bulk sample phase of the project, which includes the extraction of a 100,000 tonne coal sample to determine the viability of full mine development and confirming that the coal is marketable.

He said the decision to repatriate the workers was a difficult one, but the real cost will be in the project delay and disruption to the planning process brought on by the unions’ litigation.

“We need reasonable certainty before initiating work on our underground bulk sample. We have also decided to delay bringing any additional workers to Tumbler Ridge until we have reliable certainty,” he said.

The International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union have successfully applied to the Federal Court for a judicial review of the federal government decision to grant HD Mining permits for 201 temporary foreign workers. That review is due in April.

According to HD Mining, the original project schedule was based on approvals received from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada last April for the use of 201 workers under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

The company said the project’s delay will have negative impacts on other work occurring in Tumbler Ridge, which provide jobs and other benefits to the community, such as the purchase of project-related goods and services.

“Even though we are disappointed with this development, we are encouraged by HD Mining’s ongoing commitment to the Murray River Project, including continuing construction of housing in Tumbler Ridge, environmental assessment and developing a training program for Canadians to work in long-wall mining. “We look forward to welcoming the workers back very soon, and to full development of this project.,” said Darwin Wren, mayor of Tumbler Ridge which had endured years of hardship and near collapse when the coal industry was in hibernation till recently.

“We are very committed to the community of Tumbler Ridge and we have shown our long-term interest by investing C$15 million in housing and other local initiatives.” said Mr Yan.