VANCOUVER - The company behind a plan to use Chinese miners at a proposed underground coal mine in northern British Columbia is pleading with a pair of unions to drop their legal challenge of the project's temporary foreign worker permits and instead sit down to talk.

HD Mining issued an open letter to the unions on Thursday as the company continues to defend its use of temporary workers and insist its long-term plan is to hire Canadians whenever possible. The letter says the company is committed to consulting with the unions on the quickest way to train and hire Canadian workers but insists the Chinese miners are necessary in the short term.

The International Union of Operating Engineers and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union immediately rejected the request to drop their court case.

HD Mining plans to use 201 Chinese miners at its proposed Murray River underground coal mine near Tumbler Ridge. The unions have asked the Federal Court to throw out the temporary foreign worker permits, arguing HD Mining didn't take adequate steps to hire Canadians.

The company insists it needs to use foreign workers because Canadian miners aren't trained on the specialized form of underground mining that will be used at the mine, while pointing to its own plans to hire and train Canadians eventually.

"There are strongly held views on all sides and the matter has received a great deal of media attention, but the dispute has not created a single job and it is causing considerable strain on our proposed Murray River Project," says the letter, signed by company chair Penggui Yan.

"We are prepared to engage in a dialogue with the unions if there is a mutual interest in doing so."

The letter says the unions should drop the lawsuit and allow the company to use temporary foreign workers for its exploration work.

If the project proceeds, the letter says, the company is prepared to work with the unions to develop a curriculum for a new program at a local college and review the company's own training and transition plan. The letter also says the company will consult with the unions before making additional temporary foreign worker permit applications to ensure any future applications "could be done with the full support of the unions."

Spokesmen for the unions hadn't seen the letter until contacted by a reporter, but they said the lawsuit will continue.

"The court case is not ending — the company has shown no good faith at any part of this proceeding, so it's not about to go away," Mark Olsen, of the Construction and Specialized Workers Union, said in an interview.

"If that's an open invitation to meet with the company, that's good news, but not at the expense of the legal proceeding."

Olsen said the Federal Court case will raise important questions about the temporary foreign worker program that need to be answered regardless of whether the HD Mining project proceeds as planned.

Brian Cochrane, the business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers, dismissed the letter as little more than a public relations exercise. He questioned why his union learned of the letter from the media, not the company.

"I think it's outrageous that they would try and negotiate such a position via a press release and not by contacting us directly to have a conversation," said Cochrane.

The company has since suspended its use of Chinese miners at the Murray River project. It announced late last month that 16 Chinese workers who were already in Canada had been sent home, and no others would arrive until the legal challenge was sorted out.

This past weekend, the unions said resumes submitted to the company by Canadians, which were recently released as part of the court case, indicate miners from this country with decades of underground experience applied to work at the Murray River project but were rejected.

HD Mining has said the union's claims are inaccurate.

Last November, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley issued a news release that said she and her ministry were "not satisfied" HD Mining had made sufficient efforts to recruit or hire Canadians. She announced the federal government was reviewing the entire temporary foreign worker program.

This week, B.C. Jobs Minister Pat Bell said the controversy indicates a need to review and fix the program. He said the public appears to have lost faith in the system, though he stressed he wasn't criticizing HD Mining's project or how the company obtained its temporary foreign worker permits.

Still, while Bell emerged as one of the project's most vocal supports last year, suggesting concerns about the foreign workers were based on nothing more than "myths," he now says he can't comment on the case because it is before the courts.

The permits at issue relate to work on what's known as a "bulk sample" test to determine whether the coal is worth mining.

If the mine goes ahead, HD Mining's current plan would see all underground work done by temporary foreign workers for the first two years of operation while the company sets up a training program for Canadian workers. After that, Canadian workers would be phased in over 10 years, at a rate of 10 per cent of the mine's workforce per year, according to documents released in the Federal Court case.

HD Mining is a partnership between China-based Huiyong Holding Group, which owns a 55 per cent stake, and Canadian Dehua International Mines Group Inc.

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