'Nobody was happy': Alberta coal town Grande Cache struggles with mine closure

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'Nobody was happy': Alberta coal town Grande Cache struggles with mine closure

'Nobody was happy': Alberta coal town Grande Cache struggles with mine closure

For the past year and a half, Clancy Feller has watched his friends and former co-workers pack up their homes and seek new opportunities anywhere else.

It's a tough move for those leaving the picturesque Rocky Mountain town of Grande Cache, Alta.

But for those worried about feeding a family, there's not much choice.

"Quite a few left, walked away from their homes," Feller recalls solemnly. "They're up in Peace River, wherever they could get a job. Some are up north, some in Fort Mac."

The December 2015 closure of the Grande Cache coal mine put the last of its 650 miners out of work and cast a pall over the town that once had a population nearing 5,000. Last year that dropped to 3,500, and the exodus of families has continued unabated ever since.

It's not just the miners who are leaving. Two of the town's five doctors pulled up stakes in the past few months, businesses are closing and by this time next year the once-proud town could be downgraded to a hamlet.

Feller and his family are among those who love the community and want to stay, but are caught in a downward spiral threatening the long-term viability of Grande Cache.

"I left to get a job in Grande Prairie," Feller says, retracing the time since he and every other coal miner were laid off on Christmas Eve 2015. "The mood was horrible. Nobody was happy."

Now he's back in Grande Cache, where his family remained while he chased paycheques in Alberta's moribund oil and gas industry.

He's finally found a job in town but makes a fraction of what he did at the mine. Even as he's working 11-hour shifts in a gravel pit, he holds out hope that the community he loves will make a comeback.

Building a resource town

Grande Cache was conceived on paper well before the first bulldozer began carving streets out of the Alberta wilderness in the late 1960s. The new town about 430 kilometres west of Edmonton was a partnership between the provincial government and McIntyre Mines.

The company had won a lucrative contract to supply metallurgical coal to Japan's then-booming steel industry. A rail line was built from the coal beds to West Coast ports. The town was created to serve as home to the hundreds of miners needed to dig out the coal.

From the beginning, Grande Cache was designed to be a warm, welcoming and modern community. Because it was far removed from any major centres, the town had to be attractive and self-sufficient in order to bring in workers. Among the first amenities were a hospital, schools, shops and recreational facilities.

Among the first residents were the Stephensons, Brian, Mary and their two small children, who arrived in 1969. He was the town's first doctor. Mary became deeply involved in the cultural and civic development of the new community.

"Bustling, busy, there was always something going on," Mary Stephenson says. "Things were happening and it was really good. People were optimistic."

Risks of a resource economy

It did not take long for Grande Cache to begin feeling the ugly impact of the boom-bust cycle. In 1972, the mine lost about $7 million. By 1973, it was still losing money and part of the mine was forced to close, leading to the layoff of 150 workers — nearly half its workforce at the time.

Over the next 44 years, a cycle of high and low prices, closures, reopenings and changes in mine ownership created instability in the town.

But new secondary industries also began to emerge. A sawmill, power plant and provincial jail added hundreds of jobs for a time, but now even they are threatened.

The power plant, which employed about 70 people and used scrap coal from the Grande Cache mine, was shut down in 2016. The plant's current owner, Maxim Energy, say it can't make enough money to keep it running. Even though the plant has been approved to switch to natural gas, Maxim has not gone ahead with a conversion.

The provincial jail, built in 1985, was leased to the federal government 10 years later and converted to a medium-security prison.

With 308 employees to oversee its 230 inmates, the prison is the town's largest employer. But its future is also in question. The federal lease expires in 2020 and there is no agreement that would keep it operating.

That leaves the sawmill, Foothills Forest Products, as one of the more stable influences on the local economy. The mill employs about 110 people, with another 100 or so working in related industries such as trucking.

While forestry is traditionally one of the more volatile of the resource industries, Foothills also faces some unique challenges.

The areas where it cuts trees are part of the ranges of two endangered caribou herds. A plan created by the federal and provincial governments to protect the herds could endanger Foothill's ability to harvest trees in those forests. The company says the threat from endangered caribou is an even greater concern than the softwood lumber dispute with the U.S.

The downward spiral

While coal has been falling out of fashion as a fuel for power plants, the product mined in Grande Cache is somewhat different.

Metallurgical coal, high in carbon and low in sulphur, burns incredibly hot and is essential in the production of steel. But it is also subject to the whims of international market forces that create wild price fluctuations, leading to the boom and bust cycle Grande Cache has constantly lived with.

The latest and most devastating crash came quickly for the town, which as recently as 2014 was still developing municipal plans forecasting growth of several thousand people over the coming years.

A newly renovated high school and library opened this year. The recreation centre and pool have been recently and extensively upgraded. On top of that, a $13-million water treatment plant is being built using funds from the federal-provincial small communities fund.

"We have a good high school and we have a good educational system here. We have a fairly new rec centre with a new pool and water slide," says the town's mayor, Herb Castle, who also questions the practicality of those projects today.

"They're a huge problem for us to operate and run because of the fiscal aspect of it, the financial aspect of it to run these things because we need a greater population base to fund all this stuff."

The municipal airport is closed because the town can't afford to maintain it. There is also little money to pay for replacement of sewer and water lines.

The town is still able to collect property taxes on vacant properties, but in some cases it's the bank holding the mortgage that is forced to pay. At the same time, plunging property values are driving down the local tax assessment, leaving the community short about $700,000 last year. Another drop in tax revenue is expected this year.

An uncertain future

The vast area beyond the town's boundaries is controlled by the Municipal District of Greenview, a regional government that covers 33,000 square kilometres, but represents fewer than 6,000 people. The region is also rich in oil and gas development, leaving the MD in the enviable position of being flush with industrial tax dollars.

As Grande Cache's fortunes have faltered, the municipal district has stepped up its support, last year contributing $3.45 million to the town's municipal operating budget — about one-third of what it costs to maintain local services.

Now the provincial government is considering a proposal to have the MD take over the operations of Grande Cache. The municipality would retain its name, but lose its status as a town, becoming instead the Hamlet of Grande Cache. Direct control would shift to the MD and its headquarters located 300 kilometres away, in Valleyview.

Pivotal days

Throughout Grande Cache, the strains of uncertainty, unemployment and frustration are starting to show.

"Our town with this downturn in the economy is experiencing a fair bit of property theft and drug-related issues here over the past year and citizens are very concerned," says Castle.

"It's very sad," says Shauna Meaney, who is married to laid-off coal miner Clancy Feller.

Meaney's work at the local women's shelter gives her an intimate view of what is happening inside families facing huge financial and emotional strains.

"Substance abuse, lots of substance abuse," Meaney says. "Drinking and domestic violence comes in with that as well. The whole community I think has been affected by the closure of the mine."

The hope is that a buyer will be found that will re-open the mine.

But even if that happens, in order to compete internationally, the mine will need to use more automation, which is a growing trend in the coal industry. It means more use of self-driving vehicles, autonomous crushers and automated monitoring systems. According to the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development this would replace 40 to 80 per cent of coal miners.

It's a solution that would also keep Grande Cache under the influence of global markets and foreign owners. But for those who love the community, it's the best they can hope for.

Clancy Feller maintains a somewhat jaded optimism about the future. 

"I think the mine will reopen. It's just a matter of time," he says.

"Then it will probably close again eight years after that, 10 years. It's just ... a cycle of coal."