Sawlogs piled in the yard at Freemans’ Lumber in Greenfield. Photo: Linda Pannozzo

Sawmill operators whose secondary markets for wood chips have taken a hit as a result of the closure of the pulp mill in Pictou County will not be receiving any financial assistance from the Forestry Transition Fund established by the province.

“Everything we do must be seen through the lens of international trade and we can’t risk jeopardizing Nova Scotia’s exemption from U.S. duties on softwood lumber,” said Kelliann Dean, the deputy minister of Intergovernmental Trade, who leads the Forestry Transition Team appointed by the premier. Dean and two other deputy ministers on the nine-person team were questioned by members of the legislature’s Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development yesterday.

Although sawmills aren’t eligible for subsidies for fear of upsetting our largest trade partner, $50 million is available through the Forestry Transition Fund to assist workers and contractors who have lost their main employer. “Laid off pulp mill workers have made it loud and clear they want to continue to work in Nova Scotia,” said Ava Czapalay, deputy minister of Labour and Advanced Education.

Czapalay said the best thing someone affected by the Northern Pulp mill closure can do is go register at one of 52 NS Works offices for a one-on-one session to figure out what skills may be transferable to another job. The province is working with the NS Apprenticeship Agency to “customize” or tailor training for heavy equipment operators, truck drivers, mill workers and others affected by the shutdown. To date, 430 people have called the government hotline looking for information.

“There are currently 204 capital projects across the Province looking for skilled tradespeople,” Czapalay told the committee. “We have labour shortages. This is about matching the people with the jobs.”

One MLA noted that working in construction doesn’t “match up” with the stated desire among many  to keep working in forestry. Cumberland South MLA and PC forestry critic Tory Rushton asked the deputy minister for Lands and Forestry, Julie Towers, to describe her “vision” for the future of the industry.

“My job is to keep the forest healthy so we have choices when it comes to forest products such as eco-tourism and lumber,” replied Towers. “Right now, we are focused on trying to make sure the supply chain stays intact.”

Lisa Roberts, the NDP’s critic for Lands and Forestry, questioned who would manage the 475,000 acres of crown land the province has been leasing to Northern Pulp to manage and to harvest wood. Towers said even though the mill has been shuttered, the company (Northern Pulp Nova Scotia) still has access to the wood.

“We are talking with Northern Pulp about how to continue the flow of that volume to sawmills,” said Towers. She suggested it could continue to be managed through Northern Pulp or through either Taylor Lumber, Great Northern Timber, or another company assigned by the province. “The contractors who cut wood on that land for Northern Pulp can still cut wood but it will go to another company,” said Towers.

PC Forestry critic Tory Rushton questioned the deputy ministers about the immediate need for sawmills to find replacement markets for 600-700,000 tonnes of wood chips Northern Pulp used to buy. Why, Rushton wanted to know, wouldn’t the Transition Team urge the government to order NS Power to buy more chips to supply the large-scale biomass boilers in Brooklyn and Point Tupper to provide “temporary short-term relief”?

“That could create trade risk for Nova Scotia,” said deputy minister Kelliann Dean, again mentioning that the forestry sector fought hard for an exemption from U.S. softwood lumber duties on the basis the industry here is less subsidized. (We’re not sure how that squares with the tens of millions of dollars taxpayers have contributed to Northern Pulp and Port Hawkesbury Paper, but that’s another story.) Dean said although the government cannot order a company to buy more woodchips, the private sector could choose to. Then she added, “I believe Nova Scotia Power is looking at using more chips at its Point Tupper plant.”

According to Andrea Anderson, spokesperson for Nova Scotia Power, the company has issued an RFP for “wood chips and sawmill waste” to supply the biomass boiler located at Port Hawkesbury Paper. Last year it bought and burned 85,000 green metric tonnes. (“Green” tonnes refer to freshly cut wood with higher moisture content than wood which has sat out and dried until the moisture content is lower.) Anderson says how much NS Power buys this year will depend on the price of the fuel.

“Lower sawmill waste costs could increase the amount of biomass we purchase and ultimately the amount of biomass energy we generate at our Port Hawkesbury plant,” said Anderson in an email. “Price will be a key consideration because keeping electricity rates affordable is our top priority for customers.”

Nova Scotia law considers biomass a form of “renewable” energy even though only 25% of the wood consumed by the large-scale boiler will create electricity. It’s shockingly inefficient and environmentalists argue if its carbon emissions were properly calculated, the Point Tupper boiler should be shut down.

Last but not least, PC Leader Tim Houston used up much of his time trying to establish whether the premier told the truth a year ago. Houston read from a transcript of Premier Stephen McNeil’s interview with CBC Radio on February 22, 2019. Asked by the interviewer if the government had a Plan B if Northern Pulp were to close, the premier said the following:

We currently have a committee internally right now looking at all of the possible options if the mill closes. What we do with sawmills in terms of excess chips and residual matter has now become part of the business model. Looking at securing the pension plan. What are potential retraining programs that are available. We will then, in very short order, be going external, out to our partners in the sawmill industry to see the art of the possible for providing options in that community.

Houston suggested to the deputy ministers on the Transition Team that he can’t square that proactive “version” provided by the Premier with what appears to him to be a Transition Team reacting to events with very little advance planning or preparation.

“Were you starting from scratch?,” Houston asked Forestry Transition Team leader Kelliann Dean. “Can you provide anything in writing, minutes of meetings or terms of reference for that internal committee the premier described a year ago?”

Dean could not but said Lands and Forestry Minister Julie Towers participated in earlier discussions. Towers did not respond to Houston’s question which was stick-handled by Dean.

“Certainly we are not starting from scratch,” replied Dean. “To think deputy ministers wouldn’t discuss or share information — of course we do. We have people in the sector talking to us whom we can turn to. The actions taken and the program is based on an understanding of the forestry sector and how it reacts under stress when it loses a customer.”

The Transition Team has so far allocated $7 million for additional silviculture and road work, $1.5 million for one-on-one job retraining, and $5 million to guarantee loans for forestry contractors with payments to make on equipment. The government expects these initiatives will keep about 250 people working over the next several months. The Transition Fund totals $50 million and the Team will meet for six months to consider short and long-term responses to the mill closure.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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