Port Alberni, union blast Western Forest Products on shuttered Somass mill

PORT ALBERNI — The City of Port Alberni and its forest industry took direct aim at Western Forest Products on Thursday, telling the coastal forest giant to put its money where its mill is.

Using the empty lot of the idle 42-acre Somass sawmill site as its backdrop, the union representing coastal forest workers and its supporters demanded Western Forest Products either invest in and reopen the mill or sell the site to someone willing to put the Alberni Valley to work.

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“I’m calling on Western to either invest in this site and reopen or make the bold decision to sell it to someone who is prepared to do that,” Port Alberni Mayor Mike Ruttan told a group of more than 200 United Steelworkers and other supporters. “This business of holding the workers, holding the city and this area hostage is not OK.

“This decision to close the mill, but not really shut it down officially is not OK.”

Western Forest Products announced the indefinite curtailment of the mill in July. It had been temporarily curtailed since February, prior to which it operated on a single-shift basis.

Ruttan asked the company to “show some belief in the future of Port Alberni.”

“The future is what we make it. It does not have to be a closed sawmill that used to employ 1,200 people,” he said, saying the potential of the site is huge.

The company’s status as a major employer and taxpayer will not stop the city from calling on them “to reinvest in the area where it takes part of its wealth from,” Ruttan said.

The midday rally was organized by United Steelworkers Local 1-1937, which represents coastal forest workers on the Island, most employed by Western.

Brian Butler, president of the local, said he is concerned and frustrated and warned the company that it would be hearing a lot more from the union about the Alberni Valley.

“This soft shutdown [of Somass] is about seeing if there will be push back, if there will be any reaction,” he said.

“They are testing the water to see if they get any push back. If there’s no reaction, they will tear it down.”

He also suggested that with just one shift working at its Alberni-Pacific mill, Western is indicating it would prefer to get out of the area.

“It’s ridiculous they get to shut down these mills and there’s no consequence,” Butler said. “That timber in this valley belongs to everyone here and everybody in this province, yet the government has allowed them to get rid of it, to ship it out.

“Those [raw logs] are our jobs — they have to stay in the valley.”

The rally also heard from the Langley-based San Group, which this year bought the Coulson sawmill and has invested heavily to increase production.

Bob Bortolin, vice-president of business development for San, said they have plans to invest between $30 million and $40 million over the next three years and see a bright future in Port Alberni that could include an investment in another manufacturing site.

In an interview, Bortolin said they would consider all options, including trying to buy Somass.

“We are always looking at options in terms of investment,” he said. “As a group we are committed to this town and we are not leaving. This used to be a vibrant community. We want to bring it back to what it was.”

Bortolin said attempts to meet with the company have been unsuccessful.

Babita Khunkhun, spokeswoman for Western Forest Products, said the company would not comment on rumours of a sale of the site. She also noted a final decision has not yet been made on the future of the Somass site.

“The decision to indefinitely curtail the mill was made as part of our continued focus on reducing costs in order to address the uncertainty caused by pending duties on Canadian softwood lumber products sold into the United States and ongoing log supply challenges to operate the mill efficiently,” she said.

“We have to reduce our costs to remain competitive, and the decision to indefinitely curtail the mill was not made lightly.”

 Khunkhun noted that all employees were offered voluntary severance as well as support in exploring alternative employment opportunities. The company also noted it has invested heavily to update its mills on the east coast of the Island.

While he wouldn’t get drawn into the reasons Somass has been shuttered, Rick Jeffery, chief executive of the Coast Forest Products Association, said the coastal forest industry is facing serious challenges and companies are having to make difficult decisions — such as closing operations and tailoring their production to the available fibre supply.

“The economic health of the coastal forest industry is very challenging. Margins are being pressed and investment is difficult to attract,” he said.

“We have a discount in the investment community because of the high risk associated with coastal operations.”

That risk is down to the impact of countervailing and anti-dumping duties on softwood lumber exports to the U.S., which have increased the price of cedar to the point U.S. customers are looking at alternative products.

At the same time, companies have been concerned about fibre supply with increasing pressure to protect old growth and concern over access to timber stands.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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