Whether Stephen McNeil’s government had a Plan B to deal with the disruption created by closing Northern Pulp remains an open question.
Meanwhile, Elmsdale Lumber is running with its own “Plan B.” The century-old family sawmill is owned by Robin Wilber, the same man turfed from the Forestry Transition Team for suggesting the Province consider permitting Northern Pulp to go into “hot idle.”
Elmsdale employs 50 full-time workers. Here is an excerpt from its January 31, 2020 newsletter for employees called “Wood N You Like to Know”:
Over the past few years, we have communicated to our team that should the inconceivable happen, we have a “Plan B.” After the Premier’s announcement we began the implementation of our “Plan B.” We have secured some long-term and short-term homes for our by-products: chips, sawdust, shavings, and bark. Without question, we have taken a hit in the return for these by-products. But we will survive and as always, we will find ways to work smarter, leaner and safer.
Elmsdale Lumber used to sell much of its bark and wood chips to Northern Pulp in Pictou County. Closure of the pulp mill has forced Elmsdale to look for new markets. Fourteen percent of every saw log is bark; some went to Northern Pulp to feed the boiler which generated steam and electricity for the mill. Bark was also sold to local landscaping companies. Wilber says landscapers have agreed to buy more to pick up the slack, and the sawmill will start adding bark to fuel its own boiler during the winter.
Elmsdale had two markets for its wood chips, so it’s better off than some other mills that relied solely on Northern Pulp to buy their sawmill residues. For 20 years, Elmsdale Lumber has been selling sawdust and shavings to the Shaw Group’s manufacturing plant down the road in Milford. “Burning Embers” wood pellets are made there and sold through hardware stores.
Northern Pulp also bought tonnes of Elmsdale’s sawmill chips. After a log has been squared off for lumber, the ends and slabs removed from the outside of the log are turned into chips. Wilber said the chips provide high quality fibre. Northern Pulp mixed those sawmill chips with low grade pulpwood to produce pulp which was shipped to make newsprint and products like paper towels and tissue.
The loss of that large customer led Elmsdale to install new machinery to make smaller sawmill chips — one quarter of their previous size. Wilber says the change helps pellet manufacturers make a better quality product. The problem for Elmsdale is that the price commanded by wood burned to produce heat (a pellet) is less than the price it was being paid for wood used to produce paper.
“In the long term, if anybody thinks burning the best wood fibre from a sawmill log is a better idea than making a high-quality paper product, they are sadly mistaken,” said Wilber. “The government has suggested using biomass to heat government buildings. That’s all good. But it’s a short-term fix.”
“The industry can’t survive on selling a high-cost product at the lowest possible price,” continued Wilber. “It will be a slow death if we don’t find new markets. We hope that Northern Pulp will eventually start up again and we can resume selling sawmill chips at a much higher value.”
The sawmill operator said there are people in Nova Scotia from other parts of the world (including China) presently sniffing around looking to buy wood fibre. He personally doesn’t see it as a viable option for Elmsdale because of the high cost of transportation.
The premier is “wrong,” claimed Wilber, to try to convince Nova Scotians the pulp mill deserves all the blame for the present situation. He said the mill “isn’t lily-white,” but over a two- to three-year period, the number of studies required by the Nova Scotia Environment Department to gain approval for the proposed wastewater treatment facility to replace Boat Harbour increased from seven to 68.
“How the heck could any company hit that moving target?” asked Wilber. “It was impossible.”
That issue is expected to be front and centre next month during Northern Pulp’s request for a judicial review of Environment Minister Gordon Wilson’s decision last December.