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High times over for marijuana mine

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FLIN FLON -- From humble beginnings to the international spotlight, there has never been a mine quite like Trout Lake.

After more than three decades, hundreds of grime-charred men and untold millions in profits, the landmark mine ended its remarkable run last week.

It is remembered for far more than the 24 million tons of ore hauled from its dark, foreboding tunnels. In its time, Trout Lake was arguably one of the most famous mines in the world.

When a copper-zinc deposit was discovered beside Trout Lake, just east of Flin Flon, in 1976, the enthusiasm was palpable yet tempered. Flin Flon-based Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting, now known as Hudbay, forecast a tidy profit from a mine expected to last just five years.

Production began in December 1981, feeding ore to a metallurgical plant a few kilometres down Highway 10A. Ongoing exploration would stretch out the life of the mine as the initial five, 10, 15 and then 20 years passed.

And it was 20 years on that Trout Lake gained global notoriety mixed with a dash of controversy.

In 2001, within vacant space in the mine, a Saskatoon-based firm launched the nation's first legal marijuana grow-op. Under contract to Health Canada, Prairie Plant Systems would supply chronically ill Canadians with safe subterranean weed to ease their pain.

The location made sense. Not only did the mine's 12,000-square-foot growth chamber offer unprecedented security from looters, it also guaranteed modified plants would not spread their traits to surrounding vegetation.

Media from all over the world were on the story. Even the granddaddy of them all, The New York Times, dedicated coverage, reporting that besides copper and zinc, Trout Lake will "produce a very different bounty."

Trout Lake was known as "the marijuana mine," with plenty of jokes about memory lapses and junk-food binges aimed at Flin Flon. There were even T-shirts proclaiming the city as the "Marijuana Capital of Canada."

Not everyone took it in stride. A small pot leaf that had been added to the "Welcome to Flin Flon" highway sign was unceremoniously expunged, and letters to the editor questioned whether links to a mostly illegal drug conveyed the right message.

Then-mayor Dennis Ballard paid no attention to the critics. The affable former teacher "thought it was cool."

"I thought people that made a big stink about it, they didn't get it," he says. "I just thought we got lots of attention from it."

Attention and promise, that is. From the beginning, marijuana was seen as only the beginning of plant-based medicinal projects that would turn Flin Flon into an international leader in the emerging billion-dollar field of biopharmaceuticals.

The dream came crashing down in the summer of 2009 when Prairie Plant failed to secure a lease extension to remain in Trout Lake. All of the plants and hydroponic equipment were towed to an undisclosed location.

Of course the underground stash was not all that distinguished Trout Lake. In May 2002, its subterranean mechanical shop hosted some 300 guests for a formal banquet to cap off a mining convention.

"Dinner in the Dark" saw diners enjoy a first-class meal in their Sunday bests -- and mandatory hard hats and safety glasses. It was believed to be a world first, one that Ballard recalls as a unique experience and "a helluva good idea."

On the mining stage, Trout Lake was recognized as a leader in mechanized mining, welcoming mining officials from around the world impressed by the ingenuity on display.

For the largely male workforce at Trout Lake, the atmosphere was always close-knit, particularly as the staff dwindled in the final months. Despite demanding and dangerous work, stress rarely sparked argument among what was essentially one big family.

"It's too bad it couldn't have lasted another five years," says Bentley Busby, a gruff-voiced, exceedingly polite employee who retired along with Trout Lake.

Trout Lake comes to a close as one of northern Manitoba's most successful mines ever. Only two other Hudbay mines -- the legendary Flin Flon Mine and the Ruttan Mine in Leaf Rapids, both long gone -- lasted longer.

The good news is that Hudbay has no plans to lay off anyone as the 100-plus Trout Lake workers transfer to other company operations, including the Reed mine under development outside Snow Lake.

That pleases Ballard, who has seen the inevitable demise of too many mines in his lifetime.

"Mines open in order to close. They're like coaches in hockey, who are hired to be fired," he says.

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2012 A10

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