The founder of Telkwa Coal Limited is all-in on making the metallurgical coal mining project a reality, so much so he is moving to the Bulkley Valley.
Allegiance Coal, which owns Telkwa Coal, is also in a few weeks opening an office in the Village office building on Hankin Avenue. Managing director Mark Gray, who is moving from Sydney, Australia in April, said he will have an open door policy and answer questions for any people who would like to pay a visit.
The company has started what it calls a public information campaign, sending emails to groups it has already met and making it publicly available at the Smithers Exploration Group office, Northwest Community College, and at its office when it opens.
Gray said open houses to explain the project will start in April.
The first will be with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en (OW), with whom Gray said was the first group he met with.
He said it is odd for a company to send its director to a site, but that he and the board believed it was important.
“It’s the most important part of the permitting process, is to engage with the community, take their comments and concerns; and something as important as that, you can’t delegate it in my view,” said Gray.
The size of the proposed mine means that permitting process could be slightly shorter – a concern highlighted by some residents – but Gray insists that the environmental review would nonetheless be very thorough.
He also pointed to who was doing much of the data gathering as what he sees as evidence of its strength and independence.
“Plus or minus 80 per cent of those scientists are residents of the Bulkley-Nechako valley,” said Gray.
“There is an intelligentsia here that is quite amazing, and we made a conscious decision against interests from other outside consultants to use the local consultants so that we could disseminate this raw data into the community without manipulating it. It’s raw data which they have collected and which they are free to share. We believe that certainly brings integrity to that part of the process.”
Input from the OW is also something Gray said was a legal and moral obligation. He said his experience growing up as an Indigenous Maori person who also did legal work in the natural resources field.
“I spent a good decade of my practice representing my people in negotiations with forestry companies and energy companies who wanted to invest … which is why I get the First Nations position, and I hope to bring some innovative ideas and structures to a relationship with the Wet’suwet’en,” said Gray.
He went on to describe his personal feelings on why his background may help in understanding First Nations’ rights.
“It’s cultural heritage, I think is what it is. It’s innate; it’s an inner existence if you know what I mean,” said Gray.
The first half of this year is when Telkwa Coal aims to complete the feasibility study, which involves the detailed design of the proposed operation. The environmental baseline studies are also being completed by the third calendar quarter of this year, sometime between July and September.
Then Gray said the company could get into the permitting process.
He was asked about the concern that a possible loophole to building a bigger mine could involve starting small with approvals, then growing the mine size over the years. Gray insisted this was not the case, and that the smaller size was an advantage and why he chose it when searching online four years ago for a place in B.C. to build and run his company’s first metallurgical coal mine to ship coal to steel making companies in South Korea and Japan.
“This project’s unique; it does not need scale [to make back investment]. It has a rare combination of all the things that make mining low cost. It’s actually quite rare:
“Simple geology, shallow coal so your strip ratio is low; it washes with a very high yielding product; and excellent logistics – easy access to rail and short rail to port,” explained Gray.
He said the low production cost would help the mine not need to close during times of price volatility. As a first-time mine builder, the low cost also makes sense to the board, according to Gray.
“There’s no sense in developing something we simply cannot raise the capital to build. And we want to maintain a small operating footprint,” he said.
“Bigger is not always better. A lot of people in my business find it hard to believe why we’re adopting this approach, but we believe as a start-up company that it is the prudent way to put your first mine into production.”