Bob Bortolin, vice-president of development with San Group, tells rally that the company is interested in purchasing and reopening the Somass Mill though there have been no formal discussions. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO

Investors eye shuttered Alberni mill

Rally full of pleas for WFP to reinvest or sell idled Somass operation

Mike Youds

Special to the News

At a rally next to the shuttered Somass Mill in Port Alberni Thursday, local politicians and union management drew rounds of applause, asking Western Forest Products to reinvest or sell the plant.

The news was not strictly about the mill’s closure and job losses, though. A crowd of about 100 people, mostly millworkers, also heard from a forest company interested in purchasing and reopening the mill, which has been closed for almost a year.

WFP announced in August that it has “indefinitely” curtailed the sawmill operation —representing the potential long-term loss of about 100 union jobs — though it has yet to make the closure a permanent one.

“This rally is really about the jobs in the valley, the lack of investment, the lack of interest on the part of Western Forest Products in anything to do with Alberni Valley,” said Norm MacLeod, business agent with Local 1-1937, at the Tyee Landing gathering.

“It’s ridiculous that they get to shut down these mills yet there is no consequence to them,” said Brian Butler, president of United Steelworkers Local 1-1937. “The timber in this valley belongs to everybody in this province, yet the government allowed them to just get rid of it, ship it out on ships,” he added, referring to raw log exports. “Everybody in this valley knows somebody who’s out of work, not going to work again. It’s not acceptable.”

The nearby APD Mill, also owned by WFP, is down to one shift, he noted.

“It’s not just about that mill, APD, getting one shift … that’s a death knell for that mill as well,” Butler added. “When they do a soft shut, what they call an indefinite closure, they’re testing the waters to see if they get any pushback on that … if there isn’t, they’re going to tear this down.”

Butler said he will be meeting with WFP management on Tuesday and intends to press home the message that it either reinvests in the Port Alberni operation or the union will pressure the provincial government to withdraw its tree farm licence. The union is willing to talk to any company willing to invest and grow jobs in the valley, Butler said.

He wasn’t the only speaker sending that message. Mayor Mike Ruttan said WFP needs to reinvest or sell, noting that the city has a valuable asset in the waterfront property occupied by the idled mill.

“We can produce products here for export far more easily than the ports of Vancouver, Nanaimo or Prince Rupert,” Ruttan said. “The forest products industry, even in 2017, represents one in three jobs in the valley … Show an interest in Port Alberni or sell out.”

A number of companies have expressed an interest in the site, Ruttan said.

Bob Bortolin, vice-president of development for San Group of Companies, which purchased the Coulson Mill in May, told workers that the group is prepared to discuss reinvesting in the Somass Mill as well if WFP is ready to sell.

Bortolin said San Group is already prepared to invest $30 million to $40 million over the next two to three years in the Coulson Mill. He sees plenty of opportunity for value-added manufacturing while wondering what will happen to the pulp mill’s fibre supply if both Somass and APD were to close.

Butler said they haven’t seen that level of interest from WFP for a long time.

“We’re willing to talk to anybody who’s willing to grow jobs and keep jobs in the valley,” he said.

A spokesperson for Western Forest Products said via email that the rationale for indefinite closure of Somass Mill remains unchanged.

“The reasons for indefinitely curtailing the mill – namely, to address the uncertainty caused by pending duties on Canadian softwood lumber products sold into the United States and log supply challenges to operate the mill efficiently – are ongoing and we need to continue to focus on reducing costs in order to remain competitive,” said Babita Khunkhun, director of communications with WFP.

Khunkhun said the company recognizes the impact on employees but is not in a position to make a final decision.

At the time operations were indefinitely curtailed, all impacted hourly employees were offered voluntary severance as well as support in exploring alternative employment opportunities, the company said. The majority have accepted the voluntary severance with the exception of a few employees who continue to work at the site.

MP Gord Johns flew back from Ottawa to attend Thursday’s rally. Raw log exports have mushroomed in recent years, he said, showing the need for a national forest strategy.

Johns read a message from MLA Scott Fraser, who could not attend, promising to meet with Forests Minister Doug Donaldson about a fair and lasting forest strategy for the valley.

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