Burns Lake resident Charlie Rensby had been working as a truck driver for Huckleberry Mine since May 2012.
Rensby was one of the approximately 100 employees who received a phone call on Jan. 5, 2015, notifying they were being laid off.
Imperial Metals Corporation, which holds 50 per cent interest in Huckleberry Mines Ltd., announced Jan. 6 that pit operations at the Huckleberry Mine were suspended, affecting approximately 100 of its 260 employees.
Rensby said that although the person on the phone gave him hope that the company could be hiring him back in three months, in the end, market prices will decide when or if he will be hired back.
According to Rensby, Huckleberry employees were warned in early December that layoffs were a possibility.
“The company notified all staff at the beginning of December that something had to change to lower our operating costs and that layoffs and temporary shutdowns were all possibilities,” he said. “I feel as though they gave us as much notice as a company can.”
Even though Rensby knew layoffs were a possibility, he said the Jan. 5 phone call still left him “speechless.”
“This greatly affects the wellbeing of my family,” he said. “This takes me from being a productive employed member of society and puts me on employment insurance searching a now flooded job market.”
The mine had already laid off 20 employees a month ago in an effort to reduce costs as copper prices have plummeted over the last few years. Huckleberry chief operating officer Randall Thompson told Lakes District News at the time that more layoffs were not expected for the next few weeks.
“While Huckleberry Mine has made significant efforts to reduce operating costs, the realized savings have not been sufficient to offset declining copper prices,” said a company press release.
Giovanni Gallipoli, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, explained that copper prices have been falling due to a general slowdown in aggregate demand around the world, and notably in China.
According to Huckleberry spokesperson and Imperial Metals vice president of corporate affairs Steve Robertson, the mine will retain the balance of its workforce to continue milling stockpiled ore.
“I think the point to be made here is that Huckleberry still has value,” Robertson told Black Press. “There’s ore at depth that we would look forward to in future years in the mine plant, and it doesn’t make any sense to pursue that at a loss at this time; we’re trying to preserve that resource for some time in the future when the mine can be operated at a profit.”
According to Robertson, there is no estimate on the timing for resumption of pit operations at this time. Those laid off are being put on a call back list for rehiring on basis of seniority when prices improve.
Burns Lake Mayor Luke Strimbold said that when layoffs such as the one at Huckleberry Mine occur, they are not only difficult for workers, but they also create uncertainty for communities. Strimbold said communities across the region must come together to assist individuals who have lost their jobs, and continue to support local businesses.
Houston Mayor Shane Brienen said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the layoffs will be temporary. Brienen said the District of Houston has been in communication with Huckleberry Mine officials and the provincial government to determine what assistance can be offered to affected employees.
“As shown in the past, the residents of Houston are resilient and have pulled together in difficult times and persevered,” said Brienen. “We will do so again.”
Huckleberry Mine’s suspension affects local industry
Huckleberry Mine’s suspension is not only affecting the lives of over 100 employees, but also local businesses who made profit out of the mine.
Kyle Thomson, Owner and General Manager of Monster Industries – a general construction company from Houston, said that with the Houston Forest Products sawmill closing in May 2014 and now Huckleberry’s suspension, Monster Industries has lost over $1 million per year in revenue.
“Monster does over $500,000 annually with Huckleberry Mine, which accounts for about six jobs or three per cent of our annual revenue,” he explained.
Thomson said that thanks to Monster Industries’ aggressive growth in other areas of B.C., the company has been able to outgrow their losses. However, if more companies in the area shut down, Monster Industries “will be laying off eventually as well,” he said.
Thomson said he expects 2016 and 2017 to be difficult years for people in Northern B.C.
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned now,” he said.
Imperial Metals, which holds a 50 per cent interest in Huckleberry Mines Ltd, also owns the Red Chris and Mount Polley copper/gold mines in B.C.
Huckleberry spokesperson and Imperial Metals vice president of corporate affairs Steve Robertson told Black Press the other two B.C. mines would remain operating. Red Chris just opened in 2015 south of Dease Lake, and Mount Polley reopened after a tailings pond breach in the Cariboo region.
“They’re obviously affected by the lower copper prices, but each mine has a unique set of economic parameters around it. Red Chris is a very low cost operation that’s got high debt load, and Mount Polley has more levers to pull because it’s got some higher grades in certain areas. So there’s more flexibility at those operations than at Huckleberry,” explained Robertson.