N.S. sawmills seeking new markets in wake of announced Northern Pulp closure

HALIFAX — The outlook for Nova Scotia sawmills after the closure of Northern Pulp is one of troubling uncertainty and, so far, few answers from the provincial government on how to replace a key customer, say managers of several companies.

Andrew Watters, general manager of the Groupe Savoie mill in Westville, N.S., said in an interview Monday he has an inventory of hardwood that still has to be milled, but no market yet for wood chip byproducts the mill purchased in the past.

The mill manager met with his 45 workers on Friday to tell them the future after the Jan. 31, 2020 closure is unclear, and he wouldn’t criticize them if they sought other work.

“I told them we don’t know how this is going to play out. If you’re going to make a plan, I don’t hold that against you. We all have to eat,” Watters said.

Mark Baillie, the manager of Scotsburn Lumber, a softwood sawmill in Pictou County, said the timing is difficult for his management team to find fresh markets for the piles of wood chips critical to his operation’s profitability.

“There’s so much uncertainty. To get this message delivered just before Christmas is a terrible time,” he said.

Premier Stephen McNeil announced Friday morning that Northern Pulp won’t be permitted to continue piping effluent into Boat Harbour, near Pictou Landing First Nation, after Jan. 31.

The Liberal leader said he was keeping a pledge to the Indigenous community made in 2015 legislation, by refusing to grant an extension requested by the firm to complete further environmental studies.

Within an hour, the company announced the closure of the mill in Abercrombie, N.S., and predicted the loss of thousands of forestry jobs.

The company had submitted plans to build a pipeline to pump 85 million litres of treated effluent daily into the Northumberland Strait as part of its proposed treatment system.

But the government twice told the company it had failed to provide enough information to allow for a proper assessment of the plan’s impact on human health and the environment.

The pulp mill has for decades purchased the byproducts of sawmills in the region, particularly the wood chips created as lumber is milled.

Baillie said he’s told his 96 employees he’s seeking markets by Jan. 4 for the chips produced by his mill.

He said he’s been asking the premier’s office for help, without response.

“I told the employees we are looking for other options…. I have meetings set up but of course the timing is terrible,” he said in an interview Monday.

Stockpiling the wood chips isn’t a solution, as they rapidly degrade, say the mill managers.

McNeil’s office says it is overseeing a $50-million transition fund to support displaced workers and assist the industry.

An email from his office on Monday says staff from across government have been speaking with people in the forestry sector throughout the weekend, with meetings continuing Monday and throughout the week.

“The first priority is to ensure people who need urgent help get that help. A toll-free line has been set up 1-888-315-0110 and people can call beginning at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday,” it said.

“Sawmill operators have been encouraged to reach out directly to the Department of Lands and Forestry and were given a number to do so. We will continue to have discussions with industry on potential markets.”

Baillie said one option that has been floated is to sell the wood chips to overseas markets, but he added he’s unclear how that would work.

“Mr. McNeil seems to think it’s pretty easy to have some ships lined up and sell the chips to China, but I don’t see the boats at the dock,” he said.

Meanwhile, opposition Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston is criticizing the Liberal government for providing little information on how it will help address issues like the lost markets for the sawmills.

Houston said he’s written to team lead Kelliann Dean, the deputy minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, asking for answers on what the mandate of the team is and how the funds are being allocated.

A union-funded study published in August by Gardner Pinfold painted a picture of Nova Scotia’s forestry industry as tightly integrated with the two remaining pulp mills, and heavily reliant on them to purchase byproducts from sawmills.

It said five of the province’s sawmills sell almost all of their wood chips to Northern Pulp, “receiving a price for their wood chips at a significantly higher value per tonne than they would receive from alternative markets such as biomass or Port Hawkesbury Paper, due to higher trucking distance.”

“Without Northern Pulp paying its current price for pulpwood, wood chips and residues, the overall value of lumber in Nova Scotia could decrease significantly,” the report found.

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