Provincial bias to have Hampton Affiliates rebuild the Babine Forest Products sawmill

Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad met with local business owners and concerned locals last Thursday.

During a Burns Lake and District Chamber of Commerce meeting last week

The future will not be without its challenges, but you have to stay positive and look ahead to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

This was the message Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad passed on to local business owners and concerned locals that attended a Burns Lake and District Chamber of Commerce meeting last Thursday.

The meeting was held in the wake of the Babine Forest Products explosion and fire that devastated the sawmill on Jan. 20, 2012.

Rustad said the government’s first priority is to help the injured mill workers and their families. He said the Employment Insurance process has been streamlined for the employees and that cheques are already starting to flow.

“I know that Employment Insurance is not the answer that people want to hear,” he said, adding that there is a jobs fair being organized by the Village of Burns Lake that is scheduled for Feb. 10, 2012, to help those that lost their jobs find another source of employment.

“Some people have said they think that holding the jobs fair on that date is too early, but I think the faster we march forward the better it is.”

He said the jobs fair will bring those looking for work, and those looking for employees together in an organized and productive way.

“There is 110 jobs available at mills between Vanderhoof and Houston … and this is not just millwrights. It’s very encouraging. Endako Mines is looking for 70 people and Huckleberry Mines is also looking for 70 people, plus an additional 30 over the next year. Conifex is also looking but they are further out. There is also possibly opportunities at Rio Tinto Alcan but they are in Kitimat.”

Next on the province’s ‘to do list’ is looking at the issues surrounding fibre supply.

“This issue has been ongoing for years. You may or may not know that Hampton Affiliates was looking at upgrades to the Babine Forest Products facility but to do so, they wanted to ensure that there would be fibre assured for the next eight years or so. Work around this issue has now been accelerated.”

He said he believes the fibre guarantees that Hampton Affiliates is looking for in order to rebuild a sawmill in Burns Lake can be given.

“We are working with a bias and that bias is to rebuild. We believe we can find the fibre.”

He said that while the province is working diligently on the issue with Hampton Affiliates, they can’t just take fibre away from other areas for the sake of Burns Lake. “We can’t create a problem for other communities.”

There is also other ideas being put on the table including combining a sawmill with other biomass related industry. “The pellet facility in Burns Lake would also be part of that. Local area First Nations are also looking at having a finger jointing facility … over time that is where our forest industry is going anyway [biomass]. We have to look at our fibre basket, determine what we can support and what type of facility we can have.”

The challenge around fibre, according to Rustad, is that 67 per cent of the fibre in the Lakes Timber Supply area is dead due to the mountain pine beetle epidemic. He said, “The fibre is still viable, but for how long? We have been trying to use as much of that wood as possible before it deteriorates.”

Adopting an intensive silviculture strategy does however, come with a $200 million price tag, which Rustad said a challenge when the government is also dealing with rising costs of health care and education.

“I think the best years in the forest industry are ahead of us. In Europe pulp mills have become bio-refineries … pulp is just one of the 20 or 30 products they create. We have an opportunity to build something for the future …. it can be done.”

He said changes to visual quality objectives could be made, which would free up a lot of timber. “Visual quality objectives are put in place for a good reason … there are trade offs and tough decisions need to be made. In the short term we are going to be okay. In the medium term we are going to be okay. We need to have a strong foundation for a facility for the long term.”

Rustad said to Lakes District News that a 2010 petition by Hampton Affiliates to relax visual quality objectives had resulted in a North Central Local Government Association resolution being made that same year. He said since that time the government has been reviewing visual quality objectives to determine any impacts on available fibre and this will form part of the government’s analysis into any potential changes.

Local, Wayne Brown asked Rustad about the Softwood Lumber Agreement and asked how the U.S. will view at any changes to fibre supply.

“They will view it with the absolute most negative lens you can imagine,” Rustad said, adding that the world has changed since the Softwood Lumber agreement was made.

“When the U.S. housing market bounces back … and it will bounce back, the amount of wood that we are shipping out to China will result in very different conversations with the Americans. China, India and Korea are diversifying the market.”

Local Bob Schneider said he has a number of concerns, including the losses faced by local retailers. “My sales are down 60 per cent. Forestry and the school district buy out of town … how can the government help? Anything purchased locally is going to help maintain jobs.”

Rustad said, “There isn’t too much that can be done on that front. We are looking to use as many local contractors as we can for any work coming up in Burns Lake over the next few years. We provided $2 million to MacKenzie when their mill closed and the money was put into a fund to use for community projects to keep people employed. People were planting trees in the community and there was facility upgrades. There was also another funding pot for training. It’s early days yet, but if we keep the majority of people that were laid off employed they are still going to be spending money and driving retail.”

Schneider also asked what the government is doing about upgrades to the railway line.

“That is CN‘s responsibility. I know they have capacity issues and businesses are putting pressure on them so problems will likely be dealt with,” said Rustad.

Chamber president Jennifer Briand asked Rustad if there is anything that can be done to facilitate the youth in the local area,

She said she is concerned about her 16 year old daughter being able to find work locally so that she can save to go to college.

“How do you make it viable for them to stay in Burns Lake? There will be 100 kids in the graduating class of 2012. There has to be urgency put on this.”

Rustad said that people will see there is opportunities if they attend the jobs fair. “Yes, some people will move on. Across the province 15 to 20 per cent of the population moves around every year. Is there going to be an impact? Yes there will, but the government can’t solve all of these problems.”

Laurie Reimer, chamber manager also mentioned that they are hosting a jobs fair.

Rustad said it is great that the community is taking the initiative, but he said he thinks that it is better for everyone to focus their efforts on one jobs fair.

“It will also help people know where to go if there is just one jobs fair, otherwise we will have people going to two or three events to get all the same information. You have to remember that there is more than just those from the mill that are unemployed. I think a focussed effort is better.”

Rustad said the province’s efforts will continue until a mill is rebuilt or a solution is found.

“We are here for the long haul,” he said, adding that he will come to Burns Lake to provide updates to the community on a regular basis.