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Blackwater Gold could provide employment lifeline for mill workers facing Fraser Lake closure

"The jobs that are hopefully for kids coming out of high school potentially for the rest of their working life, in many cases could be on the operating side, once we get into operations.”

In the wake of the Jan. 22 announcement from West Fraser Timber that it intends to permanently close Fraser Lake Sawmill this spring, a decision that affects the mill’s 177 employees, the news is not all doom-and-gloom in the natural resources sector.

Steven Dean, the chairman and chief executive officer of Artemis Gold Inc., wants mill workers to know the Blackwater Gold mine his company is developing 165 kilometres southwest of Prince George could be where their employment future lies.

Construction continues on the new mine with more 550 workers already involved, with another 300 employees needed to run the mine once it become operational. Blackwater Gold is expected to create 300 permanent full-time jobs annually over the expected 22-year lifespan of the mine, as well as 825 direct jobs per year during the construction/expansion phase.

Like the major pipeline projects wrapping up around the province, the construction phase of Blackwater is a major employer for the region. Unlike the pipelines, which don’t have many moving parts and do not require a large maintenance workforce once they are built, the mine needs people to run it for at least the next two decades and be part of the operational workforce of trained technicians, engineers, tradespeople and skilled labourers.

“I think that one of the things I’m excited most about the project is that there’s a real prospect for local jobs and to keep people in the community is a real bonus by virtue of its location,” said Dean.

“The longterm jobs, the jobs that are hopefully for kids coming out of high school potentially for the rest of their working life, in many cases could be on the operating side, once we get into operations.”

Artemis has already agreed to $615 million in contractual agreements and that translates into high-paying jobs for workers for years to come.

“(The 22-year lifespan) is our best estimate today and mines typically go longer if it’s a quality deposit and I think this is a quality deposit,” said Dean, who introduced Premier David Eby’s keynote address at the BC Natural Resources Forum a few weeks ago in Prince George.

Work continues on building the 130-kilometre 230-kilovolt hydro transmission line that will run from the Endako substation, near Fraser Lake, to the Blackwater mine. It’s one of the $36 billion in projects BC Hydro plans to develop over the next 10 years.

The Blackwater workcamp is already in place on the 640-hectare mine site and construction workers are shuttling back and forth for their two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off shifts.

Construction began in earnest last March when Artemis was granted its Mines Act Permit. Progress was halted for several days in July when a wildfire burning near the mine resulted in Artemis evacuating all non-essential workers from the site, but ever since then it’s been full steam ahead.

The company anticipates its first gold pour sometime in the second half of 2024.

“Execution in construction project is critical and we just have to keep executing,” said Dean. “It’s been an enormous amount of hard work and it’s a real credit the team and notwithstanding things like wildfire we are more of less where we hoped to be right now when we kicked off the project.

“It’s not easy in this environment of inflation and making sure we get good people to work with us. It’s always hard to get quality people but I think we have been successful attracting a lot of good people so far.”

The construction workforce is expected to peak this month as the company starts to shift its focus on bringing in operational staff. Dean says the multiplier effect means the mine will also create hundreds of indirect jobs for service industries and that will mean employment for fabricators, equipment operators, truck drivers, caterers and tradespeople in Prince George and the surrounding area.