The Elk Valley remains a vital cog in British Columbia’s and Canada’s economy.
That was one of the messages delivered in Sparwood by B.C. Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Blair Lekstrom, July 25, following a tour of the Fording River Coal Mine and area.
And the valley’s booming coal industry will expand further thanks to a $100 million investment by Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), on nine sidings between Elkford and Kamloops, which will increase coal train turnaround times from four hours to one.
“In simple terms, this whole project is about increasing capacity,” said Bennett.
Not only does the Elk Valley coal mining industry produce .5% of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product, he said, it is also “at the beginning of the Asia Pacific Gateway.”
A 10-year agreement signed between Teck Resources and CPR guarantees greater efforts in getting coal to Robert’s Bank in Vancouver, for shipping to Asia, Bennett said, and it makes complete sense, he added, pointing out that 10% of CPR’s profit comes from servicing Teck.
“They haul more coal by weight than any other commodity,” he said, adding that even more coal can be mined. Currently, about 22 million tonnes of coal a year come out of the Elk Valley “and they could produce more,” Bennett said, adding, “The next big piece is the training” of workers who can take on the jobs available at the coal mines, currently employing 4,200 people, not including administrative staff. That number is expected to climb to more than 5,000 as production increases.
Bennett also pointed out that it isn’t just the Elk Valley that is enjoying the fruits of Teck’s success. About 500 people from Cranbrook are directly employed by the mines and “likely” several thousand more are employed by businesses servicing the mines.
The coal mines have helped keep the East Kootenay ahead of the provincial curve since the 2008 world market slide, he said.
“We didn’t have anywhere near what happened in the rest of the world, because of coal,” he said. “We’ve been lucky,” he said, noting that even the region’s forest industry has fared better than elsewhere in the province. “We’ve been the poor cousins” but not now, he said.
An example of the importance placed upon improving the region’s (Elk Valley’s) transportation network, Bennett said, is in the dollars the province has spent in the past decade or more.
“We’ve (province) invested tens of millions of dollars in the East Kootenay since I’ve been a MLA,” he said.
Lekstrom said the province clearly recognizes the region’s value to the provincial coffers.
“We are a resource rich province and those resources don’t mean much if we can’t get them to market,” Lekstrom said.
“You have to continue to invest in your transportation infrastructure. Coal, right now, and for many, many years past and to come” will continue to benefit the province and its residents, he said, admitting, “There are always more projects than there is money.”
That said, the Peace River South MLA said most people are surprised to learn that a greater percentage of provincial taxpayer money is spent on roads and infrastructure outside the Lower Mainland, as the province continues to recognize the importance of rural economies.
In terms of local highways, Lekstrom said is keenly interested in finding the money to finish the passing lane project leading in/out of Sparwood and the Highway 43/3 junction must also be addressed.
“The question is, can we get it done and in the ground this year or next year?” He said of the passing lane.
Bennett noted the project wasn’t supposed to be completed until 2013 but “the goal is to get done in 2012.”
“We’re willing to work with you on that, to see what we can do,” Lekstrom said to District of Sparwood Mayor Lois Halko, noting the need for the junction to be sorted out. “You have a huge opportunity here, without question.”
Lekstrom said he couldn’t commit provincial dollars to the junction work, because of the private land interests involved, but “we’ll do what we can,” he said.
District Highways Manager Jack Bennetto said a preliminary design was done on the junction a few years ago but changes, such as the arrival of the soon-to-be-constructed Best Western hotel, mean a re-visit to designing it. “It’s shouldn’t be a lot different from our preliminary design,” he said.
Bennett said the Transportation Minister has done plenty for the Elk Valley in recent years, with $7.6 million spent on improvements, from the Wardner Overhead Bridge to the Alberta border.
Lekstrom and Bennett took time at the end of their July 25 tour to meet with Sparwood officials and local media, and they were joined by Bennetto, who e-KNOW pressed for hints of what can be expected, highways-upgrades-wise for the region.
For starters, folks in the Columbia Valley need to be patient as there is nothing major on the immediate horizon, Bennetto said, noting the far greater vehicle counts on Highway 3 compared to #93/95.
Between January and March each year Highway 3 has the same volume of traffic as the Trans-Canada, though Highway 1 has greater counts the rest of the year.
Increasing capacity on the Highway 3 corridor remains a ministry priority, both Lekstrom and his district manager noted, while safety remains the top priority.
With safety in mind, the stretch of highway from the Alberta border to Sparwood, which Bennett called “a rabbit-run” and Halko suggested is one of the most winding and dangerous sections of highway in the province, is due for more work, Bennetto said.
Before that, there is to be a four-laning project near Galloway, as well as paving work at Cranbrook and more work at Fort Steele.
It was a big and busy day for the senior minister, who toured the Fording Coal Mine site, officially dedicated the siding at Elkford, and then rode south to Sparwood aboard a coal train.
Lekstrom was even allowed to “drive” the train for a few seconds, under the watchful eye of CPR’s head instructor, as they rolled south to Sparwood.
The trip was made all the more scenic by the abundant wildlife, including a brief spotting of a wolverine chasing a squirrel, something that is extremely rare to see, noted Bennett.
Ian Cobb/e-KNOWTags: Asia Pacific GatewayB.C. Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Blair LekstromCPRDistrict Highways Manager Jack BennettoDistrict of Sparwood Mayor Lois HalkoDr. Norman Keevil sidingElk ValleyFording River Coal MineKootenay East MLA Bill BennettPeace River SouthTeck Resources
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